This post is a brief interlude from our normal discussions on virtue, ethics, and community. For a moment, let’s talk about rockets. They’re really big, and really cool, and they’re about to change human history forever.
Check out this Vine: https://vine.co/v/OjqeYWWpVWK
What you’re looking at is the first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket failing to land perfectly on an autonomous spaceport drone-barge in the Atlantic Ocean. Let me break that down for you and give you a bit of background just in case you don’t follow developments in rocketry.
Who is SpaceX, and a bit of history
SpaceX is an American aerospace company based out of California, founded in 2002 by Elon Musk (previously a co-founder of PayPal) with the stated goal of lowering the cost of access to space, and in the long term, colonizing Mars. They have several future rockets in development, but their current work-horse rocket is the Falcon 9. It’s the first and largest of the Falcon 9’s two stages you see crashing in the above Vine. Since the Falcon 9 was introduced to the market in 2010 it has filled its launch manifest with contracts from both NASA and the private sector, business that came at the expense of existing rocket companies like Boeing and Arianespace, by offering access to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) for substantially lower prices than the competition.
The Falcon 9 however is an “expendable launch vehicle”, or ELV, which means that each rocket launch is a one-use event. The rocket is not recoverable, and a new one is built each time. Needless to say, this is a very expensive way to do business. Imagine what airline tickets would cost if they threw away the plane after each flight.
Of course the problem of expendable launch vehicles being wasteful and expensive has been known for a long time. This was obvious during even the dawn of the rocket age immediately after World War II. There was some work done on reusability back then, but those projects were quickly scrapped and the funding was moved to expendable design. The reasons for this were two-fold: (1) the military needed rockets to deliver nuclear payloads, and those sorts of rockets are a one-way trip. Reusability is a wasted feature on an ICBM. And (2), President Kennedy wanted to reach the Moon on an incredibly ambitious time schedule in order to beat the USSR at something. Expendable rockets are simpler to build and fly, and the technology easier to develop, so they could meet the politically imposed schedule that reusable rockets could not. To the extent the Apollo program intimidated the Russians and helped prevent the Cold War from escalating into a hot one, it was probably worth it, but rocket reusability was lost for a generation.
The next attempt to build a reusable system was the Space Shuttle, and it was a partial success, but mostly a failure. The Space Shuttle Orbiter (the white quasi-plane looking part) was partially reusable, but not rapidly so. It required significant refurbishment between each mission (especially on the heat-absorbing tiles), which was very expensive. Further the solid rocket boosters on each side basically had to be rebuilt each time they were used (a bit like rebuilding the engine of you car between each trip to the grocery store), and the big orange external fuel tank was lost entirely. The end result is that the Space Shuttle flew infrequently and cost between $1 and $2 billion per launch, depending on how you chose to do the accounting. Not very frequent, and not cheap. (By comparison, Falcon 9 may have a smaller capacity than the Shuttle, but a new one can fly every month and for only $65 million per launch).
NASA fiddled around a bit more with reusability in the 90’s by experimenting with the DC-X and VentureStar concepts, but both of these projects were eventually abandoned by NASA despite their technical merits and NASA has not done anything significant in the RLV space since. Ever since that time NASA has (in my opinion) been fatally captured by the special interests in Congress more interested in funneling government money into local-district jobs than reaching space, and the Constellation-come-SLS programs have been a sinkhole of money and engineering talent from which no useful rocket will ever fly.
SpaceX picks up where NASA left off
Now it’s precisely into this morass of despair that mankind will never develop cheap access to space that Elon Musk ventured when founding SpaceX. We know from interviewing engineers who started the company with him that Elon demanded that reusability be built into the Falcon’s Merlin engines from the very beginning, even if the rockets themselves weren’t reusable yet. Elon had learned the lesson of the Space Shuttle – it wasn’t enough for a rocket system to be “sort of reusable”. If access to space was going to be cheap, reusability had to be rapidly reusable, or RRLV. Basically – fly, land, refill the tank, and fly again within a day or so. No six-month refurbishment cycle, no strap-on boosters that need replacing.
SpaceX is advancing quickly towards that goal, and has already made more progress than NASA ever did. As I mentioned earlier, the Falcon 9 only flew for the first time in 2010. The “Grasshopper”, a modified Falcon 9 used in Texas to test reusability, was built only a year later in 2011 and flown between 2012 and 2014. Here’s some videos of those test flights. In 2014, following an ordinary rocket launch (if any of them are ordinary yet), SpaceX caused the Falcon 9’s (since upgraded to v. 1.1) first stage to decelerate and briefly hover over the Atlantic Ocean before landing in the water. The stage wasn’t recovered but it proved deceleration to a controlled landing was possible. And so it was that last November SpaceX revealed its autonomous spaceport drone-ship, a football field-sized drone-ship that a rocket could conceivably land on.
(As a side note, the ship itself is really cool. You think remote-controlled drones that Amazon sells are cool? Or that Google’s self-driving cars are the bees knees? Well this is a drone ship the size of an oil rig that can hold position in stormy seas and a rocket can land on. What a great synthesis of recent innovations in offshore platforms, sensors, and drone technology.)
Now as you saw in the above Vine, the landing was not a success. That’s shame, but I bet the folks at SpaceX are really happy with it anyway. For one thing, this wasn’t an expensive test-flight rocket built just to land on the barge. This was a fully functional (and paid for) Falcon 9 that had already delivered a Dragon cargo spacecraft into its docking orbit with the International Space Station. This flight had paying customers satisfied with the performance; SpaceX is basically having NASA pay for its test flights.
More importantly though, this was only the first attempt to land on an free-floating platform at sea that’s ever been attempted by a vertically-landing rocket (or any kind of rocket, that I know of). It’s amazing to me that the rocket even hit the barge at all. For a rocket coming in from 80 km up and traveling at Mach 10, finding a 100′ by 300′ target in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and landing on it even as gently as was seen is incredible.
And of course this isn’t where the story of SpaceX’s reusability program ends. The reason this rocket crashed is already known (it ran 10% short of the necessary working fluid in the hydraulic system controlling its wings). A bit more hydraulic fluid will be added to the next attempt (in just three weeks!), and maybe this time the Falcon 9 will stick the landing. Or, as Elon admitted on Twitter today, maybe the rocket will blow up for another reason entirely. But the point is they keep learning and trying. Eventually I have faith they’re going to get this, and the Falcon 9 will become the first rapidly reusable space transport system the world has ever seen – and probably some time this year, as they have twelve flights on their manifest to keep trying with.
But why should anyone besides a rocket nerd care?
Okay, so possibly some time this year SpaceX may land a rocket, fill the tanks back up, and fly again. What’s this mean in practice to the average Joe?
This is where economics comes in. Currently, a Falcon 9 costs $65 million / flight and puts 28,000 lbs of cargo into Low Earth Orbit; that’s about $2,100 per pound. The Falcon Heavy (the next generation SpaceX rocket to fly for the first time this year, but using mostly proven Falcon 9 technology) should bring the price per pound down to around $1,000. Not bad at all, compared to contemporary and historical examples. But that’s based on the ELV design where the rocket is thrown away. What happens when we reuse the rockets? Well, prices come down – a lot.
Rocket fuel is pretty cheap. According to Elon, the fuel bill is less than 2% of the cost of a launch, or about $20/lb for the Falcon Heavy. If the cost of the rocket can be amortized over 20 flights or more, you’re looking at costs to reach orbit down around $100/lb or less. Assuming a human and all his luggage weighs 500 lbs, that’s a mere $50,000 to reach orbit. Compare that to the $70 million per person that NASA is currently paying Russia to reach the ISS. Quite a savings.
Further, consider that SpaceX is currently building (and throwing away) a new Falcon 9 every month. Imagine if instead of throwing them away, they flew them again the next month (or week (or day)). Within a year SpaceX could have a fleet of rockets making daily trips to orbit. Currently there isn’t even demand for that level of space access, but that’s because the current market is built around paying Boeing $50,000 per lb instead of paying SpaceX $500 per lb or less. When price falls, demand rises.
Once space access is cheap, what happens? Here’s some ideas-
- You think the Hubble telescope is cool? With cheap space access, private Universities or smaller national programs could put multiple Hubble telescopes in orbit each. And bigger, too.
- Private robotics teams could afford to send rovers to the Moon, Mars, Venus, or, who knows- Ganymede.
- CubeSats, already cheap, could become college-project cheap.
- Bigelow Aerospace could put inflatable space stations in orbit larger than the ISS, for much less money, and lease the space to national space programs and corporations.
- A private company could send men back to the Moon.
- Communication and weather satellites could be larger, and more numerous, improving life on Earth in numerous ways.
- We could mine the asteroids for precious metals such as gold and platinum. These metals aren’t just for jewelry, but have useful industrial purposes too (like being used in fuel cells). One large asteroid can have more platinum-group metals than have been mined in Earth’s entire history. We could see within 10-15 years these metals be demoted from precious to bulk commodity, just as aluminum was a little over a century ago. The consequences of such a price change is hard to predict, but you know engineers and entrepreneurs will come up with something.
- We could go to Mars.
And those are just the near-term ideas that people are already working on. Ultimately what’s worth noting is that Earth is only a small part of the solar system. There’s more of everything in space. Most of the Sun’s solar energy does not hit Earth. There’s hundreds of times more physical resources available in the asteroid belt than we have ever used on Earth. There’s 200 million cubic km of water just on Ceres, and then there’s the rest of the asteroid belt and all the comets. Habitable real estate is not so common, but you can make it if necessary.
Previous technologies I would compare this to would be the advances in navigation and ship design that propelled European explorers, settlers, and colonizers to every corner of the globe in the 1500-1700s, the invention of the rail roads connecting the American continent and the Russian frontiers, and the advent of container shipping which really globalized the world economy. Each of these inventions made what had been previously unreachable, available and cheap. The European settlement of the Americas essentially quintupled the physical resources available to Western civilization, a fact that we are still in the process of developing. The containerization of trade (along with a steadily improving regulatory climate in East Asia) made Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and China into economic dynamos. And so giving humanity access to 1000x more energy and physical resources that it previously had will have … unknown effects. But you can bet they’ll be big. Get ready. We’re about to see an expansion of human economic activity that only comes along every few centuries. It’s going to be awesome.