by Jack Shumway
This month has been monumental not only for SpaceX, the private spaceflight company of Tesla CEO and founder Elon Musk, but also for space travel as a whole. Most recently, the U.S. Air Force announced that it would be awarding SpaceX with a contract to launch a military satellite into space. The contract marks the military’s first departure from the United Launch Alliance, a venture jointly-owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which has uncontestably been granted such contracts for over a decade. SpaceX’s entry into the market for government spaceflight contracts, which required legal efforts to break up the defense department’s long-term existing contract with ULA and certification for military launches, ushers in a new age of competition that many officials believe is essential for reducing costs of future launches.
Furthermore, SpaceX has shown an impressive intention and ability to reduce its own costs in ways that will likely redefine expectations for the industry. Not only did the company bid 40% less than the Pentagon estimated it would spend on sending a satellite into orbit, but also had its first successful attempt to land the first stage of one of its Falcon 9 rockets on a platform in the ocean, a first for the industry. This success in particular has grand implications, as one of the factors making space flight so expensive is the fact that existing rockets have, so far, all been single-use, akin to building a new plane for each flight around the world. This first stage of the Falcon 9 accounts for around 70% of its $54m price tag, so being able to reuse the rockets would greatly reduce the costs not only for satellite launches, already the lowest in the industry (and $100m cheaper than ULA), but also providing supplies for human colonies on other planets—Musk’s driving and most famed ambition for SpaceX. Musk himself estimates that full reusability could lower the cost of his rocket launches “by a factor of a hundred”.
While these numbers are extremely impressive, even more astounding is the fact that this same technology used to land on earth, known as supersonic retropropulsion, will allow far larger payloads to land on Mars than NASA or any foreign government agency has been able to safely land so far. Mars’ atmosphere is 100 times thinner than earth’s, with gravity twice as strong as on the moon. Thus, landing a craft or materials on Mars requires a far stronger decelerating force than NASA or anyone else has been able to produce.
According to Bobby Braun, the former chief technologist at NASA, SpaceX rockets are actually under conditions almost identical to Mars when they first turn on their engines to do the entry burn at high altitudes in preparation for landing. Braun acknowledges that SpaceX has the first operational system capable of supersonic retropropulsion and that this technology will be used when humans are sent to Mars. Another NASA official acknowledged that by sharing this technology with NASA in 2014, SpaceX saved taxpayers millions of dollars.
Eventually, Braun believes it will allow humans to send giant payloads, such as two-story houses with fuel and food, to be landed on Martian colonies with incredible precision. Musk hopes to send a SpaceX Dragon rocket to Mars by 2018, and should this effort prove successful, we may very well see serious plans for preparing a human colony on Mars within just a few years. In the meantime, however, proponents of space exploration and the eventual development of multi-planetary human colonies should cross their fingers for the company cutting costs and revolutionizing the sphere of spaceflight economics.