There are only a few private space companies that I have any semblance of faith in these days, most notably Armadillo Aerospace (founded by programming genius John Carmack, creator of DOOM) and my current space idol SpaceX. The former’s achievements have been quite impressive with their technology progressing steadily over the past decade. SpaceX has shown everyone that the realm of space is not just for the super-governments of the world, successfully launching multiple rockets and landing numerous contracts for their services. If there’s anyone that can commoditize access to space it will be SpaceX.
Whilst their current plans of reducing the cost of access to space is clear their direction past that has always been something of a mystery. Last year they announced some plans for a number of rockets that had some mightily impressive specifications, rivalling that of rockets of decades past. SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk has gone on record saying that he wants to retire on Mars (and his wife is on board too) but those dreams had always been met with scepticism as we haven’t been past low earth orbit for the better part of 4 decades. Reports are starting to come in though that shows Musk is quite serious about his future retirement plans:
“We’ll probably put a first man in space in about three years,” Elon Musk told the Wall Street Journal Saturday. “We’re going all the way to Mars, I think… best case 10 years, worst case 15 to 20 years.”
“Our goal is to facilitate the transfer of people and cargo to other planets, and then it will be up to people if they want to go,” said Musk, who also runs the Tesla company which develops electric cars.
Putting that in perspective that could mean we’d have people on Mars by 2021 or at latest 2031. Comparing that to George Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration which had us returning to the moon in 2020 you’d be forgiven for being sceptical of it since if a government couldn’t do it with a lead time of 15+ years and a comparatively large budget what chance would SpaceX have? However SpaceX has shown that they are quite capable of creating aggressive schedules, meeting them and doing it all on a fraction of the budget that has traditionally been used to accomplish such feats. Indeed the recent announcement of the Falcon Heavy saw many people speculating about missions like a Mars sample return mission that has not been feasible due to the launch weight required but was well within the capabilities of SpaceX’s new rocket.
SpaceX has also been making strides with its Dragon capsule, putting the finish touches on it to make it 100% compatible with NASA’s human rating standards. The planned additions to the craft would see the launch abort system, traditionally a large spike on top of the craft that’s discarded once the launch is successful, put on the side of the craft. This would give the Dragon capsule an unprecedented amount of accuracy when it came to landing the craft, enabling it to soft land at a precise location rather than requiring a splash down in the ocean. Consequently a Dragon capsule could very well be used to land on the surface of other planets, including SpaceX’s goal of Mars.
You’d think by now nothing that SpaceX could do would surprise me, but it seems at every turn they manage to pull off another feat that puts their wild claims firmly in reality. Whilst we may still be a decade away from seeing any real progress on this front it still feels a million times closer than it ever did when the same goal was held by a government agency. Even if they don’t meet their aggressive 2021 target there will be a whole host of progress made between now and then, enough so we’ll have a clear picture of when we’ll be exploring our diminutive red cousin.
I’ve been unfortunately slack with space based posts on my blog recently and whilst that’s mostly due to my attention being diverted away to other exploits I found it hard to find news or topics that I hadn’t already covered that I thought everyone would enjoy hearing about. Sure when it comes to space even the most hum-drum activities are still amazing feats are deserving of our attention but that doesn’t necessarily spark the creative muse inside me that’s responsible for me churning out a blog post every weekday. Thankfully however my favorite private aeronautics company SpaceX was determined to make waves today, and boy did they ever.
It all started with a single tweet last week where SpaceX teased that “Something big is coming” and released an accompanying 32 second video showing some of their previous accomplishments. Since their bread and butter is full launch systems many people speculated that this would be the announcement of a new rocket class, something bigger than that of the Falcon 9. Today saw the full announcement from Space that the “something big” was indeed their new rocket the Falcon Heavy and it’s set to disrupt the private space industry:
Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful rocket, represents SpaceX’s entry into the heavy lift launch vehicle category. With the ability to carry satellites or interplanetary spacecraft weighing over 53 metric tons (117,000 lb) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Falcon Heavy can lift nearly twice the payload of the next closest vehicle, the US Space Shuttle, and more than twice the payload of the Delta IV Heavy.
Falcon Heavy’s first stage will be made up of three nine-engine cores, which are used as the first stage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle. It will be powered by SpaceX’s upgraded Merlin engines currently being tested at the SpaceX rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas. SpaceX has already designed the Falcon 9 first stage to support the additional loads of this configuration, and with common structures and engines for both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, development and operation of the Falcon Heavy will be highly cost-effective.
The numbers that SpaceX are throwing around are quite amazing with the Falcon Heavy being able to lift twice the payload weight of the Space Shuttle whilst costing an order of magnitude less per launch. Their specifications make multiple references to the closest competitor the DELTA IV Heavy which would be its most direct competitor citing that they can deliver twice the payload at a third of the cost. Whilst on paper their claim of double the payload rings true I’m still a bit skeptical on “third of the price” bit since the Falcon Heavy’s price range isn’t too far off the DELTA IV Heavy’s ($80~125 million vs $140~$170 million respectively), but it’s still a significant cost saving none the less.
As with all SpaceX rocket designs they are truly something to marvel at. Whilst I’m always get a bit worried when I see large clusters of engines (the Falcon Heavy has 27 engines total) SpaceX has shown they can get 9 of them to work in synchronization perfectly well in the past so I’m sure they’ll have no trouble scaling it up. What really intrigued me was the cross-feeding fuel system that the Falcon Heavy will employ. In essence it means that during its first stage all of the engines are drawing their fuel from the boosters on the side so that when it comes time for stage separation the core stage booster will still have an almost full tank. Couple this with the extraordinary mass ratio of 30, which is almost double that of the space shuttle, and it’s little wonder that the Falcon Heavy can achieve such extreme payload numbers whilst still boasting a ridiculously cheap price.
What’s truly exciting though is their planned production rate for these new rockets. Once in service SpaceX is planning to launch up to 10 of both the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy per year for a total of 20 flights per year. To put this in perspective the DELTA IV Heavy has only had 16 launches during its entire lifetime so for SpaceX to pursue such an aggressive launch schedule means that they think there’s a real demand for getting a whole lot of kit up into space, just not at the current price level. Indeed SpaceX will be the first company ever to offer payload delivery into space at the coveted $1000/lb mark, long held as the peak of conventional rocket technology. With SpaceX pursuing such aggressive economies of scale though it won’t be long before that price begins to come down, and that’s when things start to get interesting.
Whilst the cost of ticket to space is still well outside the reach of the everyman for many decades to come breakthroughs like the ones SpaceX are making a habit of releasing signal the beginning of the real space age for all mankind. The $1000/lb mark puts the cost of putting your average human into orbit at around $200,000 just on weight (probably triple that for a realistic cost) which is scarily close to Virgin Galactic’s initial ticket price for a 5 minute sub-orbital junket. As many aspects of getting people orbit become routine and the research costs are a long forgotten memory there’s really nothing stopping the price from coming down to be within the reach of those who would desire it. Sure we’re a long way off from seeing the kind of competition we see with the airlines today but the similarities between the early days of flight and the fledgling space industry are just too strong to ignore. The next decade will bring us some truly exceptional revolutions in technology and all of them will help to make the dream of a true space age for humanity come to fruition.
I really can’t express just how excited this makes me.