The Dawn of a New Era in Space Flight
(Article First Published 1/8/2016)
“Some people see things that are and ask, why?
Some people dream of things that never were and ask, why not?”
― George Carlin (Image copyright SpaceX)
After my last blog in early December, that closing month of 2015 turned out to be an epic one in space flight. Not only did British school children suddenly have somebody to aspire to be, namely our very own Tim Peake who was launched on a Soyuz rocket on the 15th December for his six month mission onboard the International Space Station, but there was also a major development in rocket technology that month that could have major implications for the future of space exploration.
In November, Blue Origin, the private space company, succeeded in the controlled landing of a rocket vertically. As impressive as this was, what then occurred in December, it could be argued, was even more incredible.
SpaceX succeeded where nobody else ever has before, in landing the first stage of an orbital rocket using its rockets just like they used to all those great old black and white sci-fi films. Not only was this an incredible achievement, it also potentially opens up a new era for humankind.
Getting into space has always been an expensive business, so much so that our dreams of conquering space were severely hauled in from the heady days of the 60s and 70s. Back then everything seemed around the corner and nearly every child wanted to be an astronaut. But as the thrill of people walking on the moon receded, even to the point that a few claimed the whole thing was a hoax (the film Capricorn One, has a lot to answer for), the stark cost became far too apparent. Excluding the incredible expense of the Apollo research program where each launch cost in 1969 $375 million (you don’t want to know how much that would be in today’s money), the Space Shuttle was meant to be the answer. But it ended up costing $450 million to launch per mission and despite being an astonishing piece of engineering, there were serious reliability issues surrounding it. No wonder our grand space exploration dreams have faded so far.
However, against this background, SpaceX’s achievement is nothing short of astonishing. Their cost per mission of their Falcon 9 rocket is currently $60 million per mission. The other cost is $200,000 for fuel. In other words if SpaceX cracks be able to reuse a rocket there is potentially huge cost savings with just maintenance and fuel costs to consider per launch. Elon Musk has been quoted as saying that travelling into space could become a hundred times cheaper. If that aspiration becomes a reality it’s a huge game changer in every sense and suddenly everything becomes possible.
A manned base on the moon? Why not. The asteroid belt become the new mining frontier? Maybe. And what about a crewed mission to Mars? It’s that particular target that’s Musk has got in his sights and sees reusable rockets as a step towards realising that dream. And right there is what we’ve always needed. The dreamers who dare to try.