The Falcon and the Future of Space Travel

Building and launching rockets can be a difficult thing to get right. This was illustrated spectacularly on March 24th when the first flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 1 ended in failure and complete lost of the launch vehicle. As many new launch vehicles fail the first time they are launched, it is hoped that this setback is just a bump in the road to a viable, competitive space launch industry. SpaceX, a company founded a few years ago by internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, will doubtlessly endeavor to understand the causes of the launch failure, fix the problem, and will try again.

Musk has lined up a number of future customers, both government and private, for his proposed family of Falcon space launchers. Elon Musk proposes to become a kind of latter day, self financed Prince Henry the Navigator. Just as Prince Henry helped to open up ocean travel by developing and sailing the caravel in the 15th Century, Musk proposes to open up space travel with his Falcons in this century. Musk plans to build a space craft, the Dragon, to be launched on the Falcon 9, a larger version of the Falcon 1, to send people to low Earth orbit.

Falcon 1, when and if it eventually flies into orbit, will the first privately developed, liquid fueled rocket to do so and the world’s first all new orbital rocket in over a decade. The main engine of Falcon 1, the Merlin, is the first new American built hydrocarbon booster engine to be flown in forty years and only the second new American booster engine of any kind in twenty-five years. The Falcon 1 is the only rocket designed to fly 21st century avionics, which require a small fraction of the power and mass of other systems. It is the world’s only semi-reusable orbital rocket apart from the Shuttle. All other launch vehicles are completely expendable.

If SpaceX succeeds as a business, the cost of launching things and eventually people into space will decrease by orders of magnitude. According to information of SpaceX’s web site, a Falcon 1 launch will cost just under 7 million dollars. A launch on the heavy version of the Falcon 9 is estimated to cost 78 million dollars, as opposed to 254 million dollars for the Atlas V heavy and Delta IV heavy.

The potential effects of the potential success of SpaceX and companies like it go beyond just the ability to launch satellites cheaper. It is an axiom of business that as the cost of a service goes down, the more that service will be utilized. For example, one of SpaceX’s future customers is Bigelow Aerospace, which proposes to launch an inflatable module on a Falcon 9 in 2008. This module is a test article for pieces of a proposed space hotel that will, if things go as planned, play host to a variety of space faring tourists and researchers.

Even NASA, traditionally not the most commercial friendly of government agencies, has started to take notice. NASA intends to spend a half a billion dollars purchasing resupply and crew rotation services for the International Space Station from companies like SpaceX. Beyond that, NASA sees a role for the commercial space sector in augmenting and enhancing its own plans to explore the Moon. In a recent speech at the Space Transportation Association breakfast, NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale suggested that commercial opportunities beyond Earth orbit in-space fuel delivery, lunar resource prospecting, and the development and maintenance of lunar surface systems and infrastructure, including lunar habitats, power and science facilities, surface mobility units such as rovers, logistics and resupply, communications and navigation, and in situ resource utilization equipment.

Some space enthusiasts, impatient with the bureaucratic, wasteful ways of NASA, exalt that plucky, entrepreneurial companies like SpaceX will eventually eclipse the space agency and make it obsolete. Probably not. There will always be a place for publicly financed, cutting edge exploration and research even as merchant adventurers like Musk make a profit by ferrying tourists, mining the Moon and asteroids, and manufacturing products in micro gravity.

NASA’s cost of doing business can be brought down if it can buy services rather than build hardware to the greatest extent possible. In the meantime, NASA and DOD can provide a core market for companies like SpaceX, helping to grow a commercial space sector that will become as important to the world economy as airlines and computers. Thus a synergy might be created that could at last begin a true space age.

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