Forget about science fiction…cheaper private space access may actually be just around the corner. Earlier this month, PayPal founder Elon Musk’s space exploration company, SpaceX, moved us closer to that goal. It did so by successfully launching a medium-lift rocket into low Earth orbit.
SpaceX was the first company to launch a privately funded rocket, Falcon 1, into orbit in late 2008. Other rockets being used by the defense industry are privately manufactured, of course, but they are the product of taxpayer funding. The Falcon is the first orbital platform that adheres to what we could consider an effort of free market entrepreneurship.
The new rocket, called Falcon 9, is of a more powerful design, with sufficient thrust to bring passengers into orbit. The payload was an unmanned space capsule, called Dragon. It is a test bed for a future human-rated space vehicle. It is orbiting the planet as I write. It is scheduled to return to Earth in a few weeks.
SpaceX has pursued a simple, redundant, scalable design for their rockets. Falcon 9, for example, uses the same Merlin engines as the Falcon 1. As its name suggests, Falcon 9’s first stage uses nine Merlins. The second stage also uses a Merlin engine, with modifications for re-ignition and operation in a vacuum. This reduces the final cost of the launch vehicle.
Having multiple engines also improves reliability for the same reason that multi-engine aircraft are safer. The rocket can lose an engine and still make it into space. Since reuse also helps reduce costs, the Dragon capsule is designed to perform many missions. Eventually, SpaceX wants to reuse the first and second stages, as well.
Although many folks regretted the cancellation of Constellation, NASA’s future space vehicle program, that cancellation might actually prove a catalyst for increased long-term space exploration. Rather than depending on a vast wasteful bureaucracy to design and launch rockets, the US space program will contract out transportation services to more efficient startups like SpaceX. No more mythical $600 toilet seats. Instead of a single platform, a diversity of many smaller players will emerge in the space launch business. This is the sort of environment that cuts costs and improves performance.
With the Space Shuttle winding down as a launch platform, SpaceX has already earned contracts to resupply the International Space Station to the tune of $1.8 billion. Full ISS resupply missions are scheduled for 2011. Following on June’s successful Falcon 9 launch, SpaceX also inked the largest launch contract in history. Iridium Communications plans to put its next-generation communications satellites in space via SpaceX and has signed a $500 billion contract with SpaceX to do so.
I strongly suspect that if space launch costs fall enough, we will be seeing space access put to commercial use in unexpected ways. How many people saw the eventual existence of Google, Facebook or even Musk’s own PayPal back when the Internet was a small government defense network?
Even with more efficient designs and organizational structures, however, rocket technology of the kind being used by SpaceX suffers from the same drawback: propellant. Moving fuel and oxidizer is the single most important logistical component of any space mission. More than 70% of the mass required to get to orbit is fuel. When we consider a possible return to the Moon, this percentage rises to over 95%.
Quicklaunch is one of the companies working on resolving this problem. Quicklaunch is a private company founded by Dr. John Hunter, a rocket scientist (literally). From 1989 to 1995, Hunter conducted the Super High Altitude Research Project (SHARP) to develop the so-called “space gun” concept. Instead of cordite explosive detonation, SHARP used gas gun technology. SHARP set records for kinetic energy above Mach 9. It also successfully launched hypersonic scramjet test vehicles for the Air Force between Mach 5 and Mach 9.
Dr. Hunter believes that the space gun technology he pioneered at Lawrence Livermore would reduce launch costs for fuel to 5% of the current price. Space gun technology, however, can’t be used for humans. The acceleration required to get vehicle to orbital speed is simply too great. This leaves the market for passengers open to companies like SpaceX, which has designed the Falcon for human space launch from the very beginning.
Mark Twain once famously said that history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. In a sense, access to orbital travel is taking a path similar to what colonial exploration did in the 15th and 16th centuries. Early expeditions were government-sponsored affairs. The Spanish crown, for example, financed Christopher Columbus. However, over time, private enterprises came to dominate the sea routes to the New World.
A competitive market of private space taxis will lower the cost to get to orbit, and will open up new vistas for space exploration. Like the early venture capitalists looking to get rich in the New World, today’s investors will also grow wealthy. We hope to see space access companies like SpaceX go public in the future. And of course, I’ll be keeping a close eye on many other types of transformational technologies.
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