BBC Earth (Asia) - - Front Page - WORDS BY COLIN STU­ART

PayPal founder and Tesla boss Elon Musk isn’t a man who thinks small – nor is he short of a few mil­lion dol­lars to chuck at any ob­struc­tion in his path. Which is why SpaceX – the com­pany he founded in 2002 with a view to de­vel­op­ing cheaper, faster, longer-dis­tance space travel, and ul­ti­mately colonis­ing Mars – has be­come the world’s lead­ing pri­vate space­flight provider.

The list of space­flight ‘firsts’ that SpaceX has racked up over the course of the past 15 years is a long one. Among other achieve­ments, it was the first pri­vate com­pany to put a liq­uid-fu­elled rocket into Earth or­bit (Fal­con 1, 2008); the first to send a space­craft to the ISS

(Fal­con 9, 2012); the first to put a satel­lite into geosyn­chronous or­bit (Fal­con 9, 2013), and the first to re­launch and land a ‘used’ or­bital rocket (Fal­con 9, 2017).

As you can see, the reusable Fal­con 9 rocket has been the key to many of SpaceX’s suc­cesses. Long term, Musk’s eyes re­main firmly fixed on the Red Planet, but in the mean­time, let’s take a closer look at this 69.9m-tall be­he­moth, which has now racked up 38 suc­cess­ful flights and is fast be­com­ing the go-to op­tion for get­ting pay­loads and peo­ple into space…


When SpaceX launched a com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lite into or­bit in March 2017 they made a lit­tle piece of space his­tory. It was the first time an or­bital rocket had be reused – it had al­ready been to space and back in April 2016.

The Fal­con 9’s first stage – the bit with most of the fuel and the main en­gines – is brought back to the ground and col­lected to fly again. This could be a gamechanger for space ex­plo­ration be­cause that’s the most ex­pen­sive part of the rocket. Pre­vi­ously, each time you wanted to go to space you had to fork out hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars for a brand new rocket. Now the same one can be used mul­ti­ple times.

SpaceX is of­fer­ing its cus­tomers a dis­count of up to 30 per cent if they opt to fly their pay­load on a reused Fal­con 9, cut­ting the cost of get­ting to space even fur­ther.


The Fal­con 9 rocket boasts a 95 per cent suc­cess rate.

There have been 41 launches since the first in 2010, and all but two achieved their stated goals. One failed to reach or­bit, the other ex­ploded on the launch­pad dur­ing a pre-flight test.

This com­pares well to the rest of the rocket in­dus­try, where the av­er­age fail­ure rate is also 5 per cent. NASA’s Space Shut­tle, which fer­ried as­tro­nauts to and from or­bit, had a suc­cess rate of 98.5 per cent, with the fa­mous Chal­lenger and Co­lum­bia dis­as­ters no­table black marks. The Rus­sian Soyuz rocket, which is cur­rently the only way to get peo­ple to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, has seen over 1,700 launches and has a 97 per cent suc­cess rate.

If SpaceX wants to start us­ing its tech­nol­ogy to send peo­ple to space, then per­haps it will have to boost its suc­cess rate a lit­tle to bring it in line with these other bench­marks.


NASA’s Apollo mis­sions did a lot more than just land 12 as­tro­nauts on the Moon. A whole gen­er­a­tion watched on as hu­man be­ings ven­tured out onto a new world for the very first time. Those un­prece­dented steps fired up the imag­i­na­tions of count­less young peo­ple world­wide, many of them turn­ing to ca­reers in sci­ence, maths and en­gi­neer­ing as a re­sult.

But hu­mans have lan­guished in low Earth or­bit ever since Apollo 17 de­parted from the lu­nar sur­face in 1972. Yes, we have the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, but don’t un­der­es­ti­mate the power of see­ing hu­mans push new bound­aries. If pri­vate space com­pa­nies can re­turn peo­ple to the Moon, or even send them to Mars, their ex­ploits will be beamed around the world in an era now equipped with HD cam­eras, so­cial me­dia and 24/7 news chan­nels. The in­spi­ra­tional ef­fect of those mis­sions would be un­ri­valled.

Who knows what this gen­er­a­tion might be in­spired to do next?


In the past, the huge costs of space launches meant only those with the broad­est shoul­ders could af­ford the astro­nom­i­cal sums in­volved. That used to mean gov­ern­ments. But gov­ern­ments are funded by tax­pay­ers, many of whom are scep­ti­cal about the mer­its of space ex­plo­ration when they see more press­ing con­cerns closer to home.

SpaceX is blaz­ing a trail for the true com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of space by prov­ing that it can be done well for less. Now other com­pa­nies are also spring­ing up, look­ing for a slice of ac­tion. Bil­lion­aires Jeff Be­zos and Richard Bran­son are al­ready putting their money on the line.

The global space in­dus­try is grow­ing rapidly, con­sis­tently out­pac­ing even the Chi­nese econ­omy. As a re­sult, com­pa­nies that were priced out of space be­fore are be­gin­ning to think that it might be af­ford­able af­ter all. The fleets of satellites that these com­pa­nies in­ex­pen­sively put into or­bit will help run in­no­va­tive new tech­nolo­gies in­clud­ing au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles and su­per-fast in­ter­net con­nec­tions.


The power be­hind the Fal­con 9 is the Mer­lin en­gine, which is built in-house by SpaceX. Nine of these en­gines are clus­tered to­gether in the first stage, while the sec­ond con­tains a sin­gle Mer­lin that’s mod­i­fied to fire in the vac­uum of space. The en­gines burn a mix­ture of rocket-grade kerosene and liq­uid oxy­gen. On a typ­i­cal launch, the first stage en­gines burn for 162 secs, and the sec­ond stage en­gine burns for 397 secs.

The pow­er­ful Mer­lin is one of the most ef­fi­cient en­gines ever built. Hav­ing nine of them in the first stage also of­fers some built-in safety. On other rock­ets, if an en­gine fails dur­ing launch, the lost thrust can de­stroy the pay­load’s chance of suc­cess­fully reach­ing or­bit. But the Fal­con 9 is de­signed so that two of the nine Mer­lin en­gines in the first stage can fail and the launch won’t be af­fected. The healthy en­gines can burn longer, pick­ing up the slack to save the mis­sion.


So far, all launches have taken place from one of three land­based launch sites. How­ever, some land­ings have taken place out at sea. Af­ter five un­suc­cess­ful at­tempts, the first flaw­less land­ing on a float­ing drone ship came in April 2016. This is key be­cause land­ing at sea re­quires less fuel than re­turn­ing to the launch site, and ex­pend­ing less en­ergy in the land­ing means there’s more en­ergy avail­able to reach a higher or­bit. Touch­ing down on wa­ter is also safer if any­thing goes wrong.

The two float­ing barges – Of Course I Still Love You and Just Read The In­struc­tions – are named af­ter space­ships in the Iain M Banks novel The Player Of Games. The for­mer is sta­tioned in the At­lantic Ocean to pick up rock­ets launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the lat­ter in the Pa­cific to col­lect mis­sions launched from Van­den­berg Air Force Base, Cal­i­for­nia.


SpaceX has al­ready suc­cess­fully used its re-us­able Dragon cap­sule to de­liver cargo to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion – the first time that was done by a pri­vate com­pany. Launched on top of the Fal­con 9 rocket, its true pur­pose is to send peo­ple into space. Four win­dows will pro­vide the lucky as­tro­nauts with a stun­ning view.

The next ver­sion of Dragon – Dragon 2 – will be launched on the new Fal­con Heavy rocket, which will also be mak­ing its maiden flight. Elon Musk has even an­nounced his in­ten­tion to send two pay­ing cus­tomers around the Moon in a Dragon 2 cap­sule and re­turn them to the Earth. Re­mark­ably, he says this will hap­pen at the back end of 2018. Given that only one gov­ern­ment has ever achieved this feat be­fore, it would be some state­ment of in­tent.


Even if two pay­ing pun­ters don’t end up get­ting sent around the Moon in a week-long mis­sion, it’s eas­ier to see SpaceX launch­ing tourists into Earth or­bit.

In the decades to come, trav­el­ling into space will be­come as com­mon as get­ting on a plane. The first transAt­lantic flights cost thou­sands of dol­lars in to­day’s money, but now the ocean can be crossed for a few hun­dred. Sim­i­larly, a suc­cess­ful launch of cus­tomers into or­bit by a pri­vate com­pany will gen­er­ate even more com­pe­ti­tion and drive down the price for all of us.

Don’t be sur­prised if the chil­dren at school now are hol­i­day­ing in space for a few days later in their lives. For the price of a round-theworld cruise or a top of the range car, they could be look­ing down on the rest of us from or­bit as they float in a Dragon cap­sule.


It’s no se­cret that Elon Musk’s ul­ti­mate goal is to get peo­ple to Mars. How­ever, that feat is leagues ahead of es­cort­ing as­tro­nauts into Earth or­bit.

Musk’s vi­sion in­volves SpaceX’s In­ter­plan­e­tary Trans­port Sys­tem (ITS). The aim is to even­tu­ally park up to 1,000 space­ships in Earth or­bit, each with a crew of 100. They’ll await the op­ti­mal win­dow to head for Mars and de­part en masse. This hap­pens ev­ery 26 months when the gap be­tween the plan­ets is nar­row­est. Musk’s pub­licly stated am­bi­tion is to get a mil­lion peo­ple to Mars within the next 50 to 100 years.

The Red Planet still presents sig­nif­i­cant hur­dles, how­ever. The ra­di­a­tion ex­po­sure on the six-month voy­age would be un­ac­cept­ably high, so the crew will need shield­ing. Slow­ing down suf­fi­ciently to land safely on Mars is a real chal­lenge, too, as is keep­ing a crew sup­plied with enough food, wa­ter and en­ergy for such a long jour­ney.


There’s a rea­son why many com­men­ta­tors baulked when Elon Musk an­nounced his vi­sion of a Moon­shot. Space travel is still dif­fi­cult, es­pe­cially with heavy pay­loads beyond Earth or­bit. NASA man­aged it in the 1960s and 70s, but only by throw­ing a huge amount of money at the prob­lem.

In the years run­ning up to the first Moon land­ing, NASA’s bud­get was over 4 per cent of US GDP – the largest econ­omy in the world.

As a pri­vate com­pany, SpaceX’s books are se­cret, so we don’t know how much money it’s pump­ing into space ex­plo­ration or how likely it is that its ef­forts will ever be prof­itable. If all goes to sched­ule then SpaceX should de­liver as­tro­nauts to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion next year, and a lot will de­pend on how that goes. Glitches could put back any sub­se­quent hu­man flights sig­nif­i­cantly, but it wouldn’t be the first time SpaceX has done some­thing un­prece­dented.

SpaceX en­gi­neers in­spect one of the Fal­con 9’s in­ter­stage sec­tions

prior to as­sem­bly

A Mer­lin en­gine be­ing

pre­pared for test­ing. The Fal­con X car­ries 10

of these en­gines

A Fal­con 9 rocket touches down one of the two off­shore land­ing plat­forms

Colin Stu­art is a fel­low of the Royal Astro­nom­i­cal So­ci­ety.

His books in­clude 13 Jour­neys Through Space And Time, Why Space Mat­ters To Me and Physics In 100 Num­bers

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Singapore

© PressReader. All rights reserved.