The possibilities of space travel have captivated us for centuries. Science fiction has put the idea in our heads that space means endless opportunities for excitement and wonder. Getting into space, though, is an expensive, difficult, and dangerous proposition, fraught with disappointment and out of reach to an average man or woman. Even worse, the United States hasn’t flown to space in its own vehicle since July 21, 2011, when the Space Shuttle Atlantis returned from its final flight. There is hope for US spaceflight though, in a relative newcomer. SpaceX has emerged as the leader in who will lead us back to space, as a privately held company led by Elon Musk. Musk’s company has beat the staid NASA contractors of the United Launch Alliance made up of Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense. SpaceX believes that one breakthrough they have accomplished will change how going to space works, fundamentally: the reusable rocket.
“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred. A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.”
— Elon Musk
The easiest parallel to make with space travel is air travel. At the beginnings of airplanes and other flying machines, they were incredibly expensive and quite dangerous. Space travel suffers those same problems now. The reason ordinary people can fly at reasonable prices is because airplanes can fly many, many times before they are decommissioned. Rockets since the beginning have only been one-use only, and that bottlenecks the potential of space travel due to the sheer cost. According to NASA’s numbers, it costs $10,000 per pound to put something into orbit around Earth. This astonishingly huge cost allows only well-funded corporations and NASA to use and visit space. With reusable rockets, the cost of space travel would drop 100 fold, putting it within the reach of average citizens, and allowing NASA and space-based corporations to accelerate the amount of projects they can accomplish.
The Falcon 9 is SpaceX’s current launch vehicle, and on December 22, 2015 it launched a satellite then landed successfully, becoming the first rocket to land back on Earth in a potentially reusable state. This isn’t just a test or a theory, this is a working vehicle which has taken things to LEO (Low Earth Orbit). The Falcon 9 is already enormously successful, having completed 18 out of 20 missions perfectly, one whose primary payload was successfully inserted and the secondary failed, and one failure on launch. Now that it has been proven possible to land a rocket after launching its payload, the costs will be able to drop dramatically. Steve Poulos, a former NASA engineer who worked on the Space Shuttle has said that he believes the cost to inspect and adjust the returning rocket to working shape would cost around $500,000. Combining that with the static cost to refuel a rocket at $200,000 gives a roughly $700,000 price tag for relaunch. A Falcon 9 launch costs $61.2 million for the whole package, which anyone can see given SpaceX’s transparency with its pricing. The difference is stark, and relaunches costing as low as 10% of the original cost will allow the field of space to explode with new players.
This is the most exciting development in rocketry in more than 40 years, and it stems from Elon Musk’s crazy vision for the future, that Mars should be colonized. Musk has dreams of creating a city on Mars with 1,000,000 people, the minimum he believes would create enough genetic variation for long-term survival. Everything he does with SpaceX is geared towards reaching that goal. This probably seems crazy. How can this dream science fiction idea actually happen? Sometime in 2016, Musk will reveal SpaceX’s plans for the Mars Colonial Transporter, with a name straight out of a Robert Heinlein novel, which will dwarf the Falcon 9 and its more powerful Falcon Heavy counterpart. The timetable for these new rockets is incredibly ambitious, as the Falcon Heavy hasn’t even launched yet. When the Falcon Heavy launches for the first time sometime in spring 2016, it will be able to carry the largest payload of any rocket that exists twice over at 117,000 pounds, comparable to the Saturn V moon rocket. It is capable of bringing a manned crew to another planet like Mars or the Moon.
Why does Elon Musk care so much to fund this stuff? Why Mars? A big reason is to act as an existential hard drive backup for humanity. No more worrying about the fate of our species from a supervolcano, asteroid strikes, cosmic rays, or any other catastrophe. If we are able to go multi-planetary, then the risk of mass extinction of humanity drops significantly. The other major reason is just as big picture, if more positive. Humans don’t just do things because they’re possible, they do them because they want to. Mars colonization would be the greatest adventure in human history. If it can be proven possible and be relatively cheap, people will do it. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Europeans left their whole lives behind to go to the New World. They went for the opportunity and chance to start something new. Musk has said that a ticket to Mars would be something you sell all your possessions to afford, like the settlers to the New World or those heading west in America in the 1800s. He wants the price to drop to $500,000 a ticket, where he feels a million people would want to go. It’s all about putting space travel within reach and making it exciting again. The saying is “where there’s a will there’s a way”, but SpaceX is flipping that on its head, with a motto much like Field of Dreams, “if you build it, they will come.”