Elon Musk, Falcon 9 Rocket Likely Changed the Economics of Space Exploration
Following one of the far too many Republican primary debates in 2012, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was mocked for suggesting the private sector be the focus of future space exploration and colonization efforts. However, considering what Elon Musk and his company just pulled off it may not have been too off base, at all.
The vertical landing successfully executed by the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket last Monday represented not only a milestone for reusable rocket technology but likely the economics of space exploration and colonization. Musk said after the test it could help humans colonize Mars, a far more ambitious short-term goal than Gingrich suggested when he suggested colonizing the moon.
“This is a critical step towards establishing a city on Mars,” he said, during a conference call with reporters after Monday’s launch. “Without [reusable rockets], it would be unaffordable – it dramatically improves my confidence that a city on Mars is possible, it’s what all this is about.”
Musk also noted that each Falcon 9 rocket costs roughly $60 million and the propellant for each launch costs around $200,000. On the flip side, each time NASA launches a rocket into space it costs the taxpayers roughly $150 million.
“The potential cost reduction over the long term is probably in excess of a factor of 100.”
NASA previously set a 2035 target date for sending humans to Mars, but Musk and other private-sector innovators predict that people could be on Mars within 9 to 11 years. The successful orbit and landing of the Falcon 9, as well as the smaller Blue Origin rocket by billionaire Jeff Bezos at a Texas facility after a sub-orbital launch two weeks ago, has others engaged in private efforts increasing their expectations.
“The landing of their first stage is quite significant,” Chris Carberry, executive director of Explore Mars, wrote in an email to FoxNews.com after the launch. “It has been one of the key capabilities they have been developing to enable reusability – and to keep launch costs down. However, this capability also could help advance the goal of landing humans on Mars, by making such missions significantly less expensive.”
Carberry runs a non-profit organization that aims to advance the goal of sending humans to Mars within the next two decades, and says the next big challenge for the two firms is to keep repeating these feats.
“Both SpaceX and Blue Origin will need to show that these vehicles are truly reusable – by relaunching previously launched stages,” he explained. “While their primary markets are different (SpaceX is developing an orbital market and Blue Origin’s market is suborbital – for the moment), I think the personal and corporate competition that has arisen could help to stimulate more innovation and generate more public interest.”
Unfortunately, Musk suggested this particular rocket would not be a part of the next journey into orbit and test landing. He called the rocket “one of a kind” yet promised to demonstrate the exact same rocket’s viability in some fashion. Still, the more recent successes have not come without failure.
Previous landing attempts ended in disaster, including the most recent accident that took place last summer. However, those flights attempted landing on an ocean platform, while the landing last week used a former Atlas missile-launching site roughly 6 miles from the Falcon 9 launch pad. Either way, the successful test yielded definitive evidence of one thing: Mr. Gingrich had it right because, as is often the case, the private sector has proven more efficient than the public, once again.