Putting The Cost Of Space Into A New Perspective
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Putting The Cost Of Space Into A New Perspective

SpaceX brings down the cost of spaceflight.

Putting The Cost Of Space Into A New Perspective

Imagine, just for a moment, that you are an upcoming business mogul living in New York City and your esteemed Chinese business partners have invited you to dinner in Shanghai. You board a 787 Dreamliner and prepare for a grueling 15-hour flight. The flight brings you across the international date-line and you’re jetlagged, completely disoriented in a new city. What’s even more perplexing is that a crew of engineers is now dismantling the jet. They throw away the Rolls Royce engines, tear apart the fuselage, and shred the seats you and the other 200 passengers were sitting in moments ago.

All 150 million dollars of it, tossed right into a landfill.

This hypothetical flight is ridiculous, but for nearly 50 years, this was the way NASA conducted its flights. In fact, this analogy pales in comparison to the cost of a Saturn V rocket launch — 1.16 billion dollars per launch in today’s economy. We spent decades and billions of dollars tearing through the sky with monolithic rockets, only to have a cramped return module and its crew return via parachute. The rest of the parts are either still trapped in orbit or had disintegrated in the Earth’s atmosphere. A savvy business person such as yourself should immediately recognize the lack of return in such flights and launches. To understand this less-than-frugal venture, let us go back to simpler time.

The Space Race, as it’s commonly referred to, was purely fueled by the Cold War of the mid to late 20th century. The United States was second in satellite deployment (see Sputnik), second to getting the first man and woman into space (Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova), and the second to capture an image of Earth from space. Desperate for a win, we decided to be the first nation to touch the lunar surface. Was it cost-effective? Hell no. But our collective effort brought forth an advancement in technology and research that was unparalleled in the 20th century. In less than 60 years, we had gone from a short flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to the edge of space.

At its height, NASA accounted for nearly five percent of the federal budget. We haven’t been back to the moon since 1972, we rely on Russia for human spaceflight, and the agency’s budget has plummeted to less than a half of one percent. The world has certainly changed, but our fiscal focus has not. It is clear that the federal body would rather invest in failing fighter jets and tanks than research and innovation of the non-explosive kind.

So, what is a hyper-capitalist society to do when we want to look further out from our own little world? We reach out to billionaires, that’s what. Enter Elon Musk, head of Tesla, The Boring Company, and SpaceX to name a few.

The goal of SpaceX is to give the business model of space-flight a total overhaul, primarily by ditching the old one-and-done rockets. His team has sent cargo to the International Space Station, launched private satellites, and has most recently launched the world’s most powerful rocket while retrieving most of the vehicle. That rocket is the Falcon Heavy, a 230-foot, three million-pound, reusable rocket. The maiden launch was nothing short of rocket-powered ballet, its twin-side boosters falling gracefully back to Earth, both sticking the landing in perfect unison with the use of retro-rockets rather than clumsy parachutes.

While the main fuselage missed its mark, crashing into the ocean at 300 miles per hour, two out of three isn’t bad. The payload, Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster, can now be seen cruising through space via live-stream, its destination: Mars’ orbit. Falcon Heavy’s future payloads will be the largest by mass that we have seen as a space-faring race — for now.

There has been a rekindling of interest in spaceflight and a lot of talk about returning to the moon and potentially Mars. Neither of these goals is to be seen on NASA’s mission plan as they struggle to keep even the dream of the James Webb telescope alive, satisfying our Martian appetite with slow-moving rovers. Let’s be honest with ourselves, the robots are fine and dandy and damn good at what they do, but the world isn’t glued to the television without a human being to empathize with.

While the Falcon Heavy could potentially deliver cargo to the red planet, accommodations for passengers leave much to be desired. However, Elon Musk is not ready to be outdone by a robot trudging around the sand and dirt. He has bigger plans in the form of — you guessed it — another rocket. The BFR, the Big Falcon Rocket (or Big F***ing Rocket as Musk refers) will be even more massive than its predecessor. Standing 100 feet taller than Heavy and triple its mass, the BFR is set to become the Swiss Army Knife of spaceflight.

A self-proclaimed optimist, Elon Musk plans for a Martian mission to take place in the early 2030s, making humanity a multi-planetary species. SpaceX plans to reach Mars by this May in the form of an unmanned Dragon 2 Capsule in order to catalog what a safe landing would require. For those would-be Martians waiting out there, it is important to remember how thin the atmosphere is and how little it does for slowing down spacecraft. It could be a bumpy landing is all I’m saying. Falcon Heavy will be taking the capsule there at a cost estimated at some measly 300 million dollars.

By 2022, according to SpaceX, the BFR will descend on the Martian surface with the initial cargo to begin propellant production plant. Those reusable rockets have to come back somehow.

Who will be there to build the plant? Who will be the first to call a different planet home? Only time will tell. Naysayers believe Musk is overly optimistic this time, but after watching the success of Falcon Heavy, this skeptic has been convinced. We’ve come a long way from stretching fabric over wooden frames on a North Carolina field of grass. Technology creeps up on us, especially as consumers who take commercial innovation for granted. Minds like the ones working at SpaceX will undoubtedly produce new technologies and methods much like NASA has and still does. But the launch of the BFR, full of crew, cargo, and ideas, will be nothing short of a Kitty Hawk moment.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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