The private spaceflight company SpaceX has done it again, and this latest achievement is an important one.
We space writers are very familiar with Elon Musk’s human spaceflight dreams that can be encapsulated in his well-known goal to “make humanity multi-planetary,” starting with a Mars settlement. And today, that goal took another step closer to reality.
I’ve been following Musk’s rocket adventures ever since his early days of exploding single-engine rockets in the South Pacific. Back then, Musk was a “dreamer” and more than a little eccentric. His eccentricities are well documented, but the world’s best known billionaire-entrepreneur is a dreamer no more. The first successful flight of a Falcon 1 happened on Sept. 28, 2008. (You can read my 2008 Space Lifestyle Magazine article on that topic, page 36) A little over a decade later, the Falcon 1 has rapidly evolved into the reusable Falcon 9 workhorse and the Falcon Heavy and, with key partnerships with NASA and companies that need to get stuff into orbit cheaply, SpaceX has developed the human-rated Dragon spacecraft to ultimately get astronauts to the space station, and beyond.
After proving itself in the cargo-delivery arena, the Dragon has now won its human-spaceflight wings: an (uncrewed) Crew Dragon is now attached to the International Space Station’s Harmony module and the outpost’s astronauts have entered the vehicle.
Building a commercially-viable space infrastructure is paramount if humanity is to truly become multi-planetary, and through partnerships between private business and government contracts, today’s achievement is proof that this model can work.
Too often, governments lack the long-term vision for human space exploration, instead plowing money into bloated, politically motivated, and ultimately doomed federally-funded projects. SpaceX may be an exhausting company to work for, but its ultimate mission is crystal clear. It’s not a satellite-launching company, it’s just doing that to build funds to do the Next Big Thing. Dragon’s autonomous berthing with the space station is That Big Thing that will drive more investment into getting stuff beyond Earth orbit.
Musk’s interim target — before getting humans to Mars — is the moon, to create a permanently-crewed lunar base. How that will shape up remains to be seen, but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from following his dreams of getting into space on a reusable spaceflight infrastructure, it’s don’t bet against SpaceX and Elon Musk’s “eccentricities.”
In May, SpaceX made history — the company launched an unmanned spacecraft, the Dragon, to the International Space Station. The Dragon performed flawlessly, berthing with the orbiting outpost, completing the delivery “test run” on May 31 when the spacecraft splashed down off the Californian coastline.
And now, remembering the highlights of this historic mission, SpaceX has put together a very cool video featuring the Dragon’s launch and space station berthing.
As I briefly discussed in today’s Discovery News article, seeing the emotional scenes of SpaceX employees cheer during the Falcon 9 launch (and then confirmation that the Dragon’s solar panels had unfurled) held the most magic for me.
Space exploration is a very human experience. It goes far beyond rockets, spaceships and awesome technological breakthroughs; exploring new frontiers is a drive that is inside us all. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk understands this and communicates his company’s drive to make mankind “multi-planetary” excellently.
In case you haven’t heard, one of the Republican presidential candidate hopefuls, Newt Gingrich, has stellar plans for the U.S. in space. Should he make it though the GOP primaries and beat President Obama in this year’s presidential elections and make it to a second second term in office, the United States of America is going back to the Moon! *applause* *cheers* *ticker tape raining down on Times Square*
“By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American!” Gingrich declared on Wednesday when he was outlining his plans for NASA and the U.S. space industry during his Florida GOP campaign.
A lot of what Gingrich said seemed to make sense — less NASA bureaucracy, more commercial investment, space prizes — but the one thing the majority of the media fixated on is the “Moon base” thing.
Generally speaking, any promises made during a presidential campaign, let alone a GOP presidential candidate primary, should be taken with a big pinch of salt. Gingrich, who has been hammered by bad press and negative ad campaigns by opponent Mitt Romney, decided to go “all in” during his Space Coast speeches in the hope of persuading Florida — a key swing state — that he was their man to reinvigorate the state’s major industry.
But it looks like his promises have gone a little too far.
Sending men to the moon during the Apollo era cost the U.S. $170 billion (in today’s money). This cost encompassed the development of manned space flight technology — from the massive Saturn V rockets to the Lunar Modules. But to set up a Moon base (an American Moon base no less) the costs of developing the technology, building the base, creation of a Earth-Moon transportation infrastructure and maintaining lunar assets for many years would spiral into hundreds of billions of dollars.
But it’s OK, NASA wouldn’t be expected to pick up the bill, which is fortunate as the U.S. space agency’s budget stands at less than $18 billion (for 2012). In 1966, 60 percent of NASA’s entire budget was pumped into the Apollo Program, so if that were to happen again, NASA science would be a thing of the past.
Using incentives, Gingrich’s plan is to heavily involve private industry. 10 percent of NASA’s budget will be set aside for industrial “prizes” — presumably X PRIZE-like programs. Also, the lunar surface would be a “free-for-all” — corporations would dig in, mine and pillage the lunar surface for its treasures. And then there’s science! Don’t forget the science! SCIENCE will be done, because science is all kinds of awesome.
But there’s a juicy fly in the ointment that Gingrich appears to be ignoring: Where’s the incentive?
As we’ve already established, spaceflight is really, really expensive. Setting up a Moon base would be really, really, really expensive. The International Space Station (ISS) took international collaboration to build and maintain (not forgetting that NASA can’t even access this huge chunk of orbiting real estate without asking Russia for a hand), so whether or not you think $100 billion is a lot of dough for an orbiting outpost, “hundreds of billions” seems like a reasonable estimate for a Moon base. NASA simply can’t “go it alone” to set up an American base, it would need to be an international collaboration, or there would need to be a huge investment made by U.S. commercial interests.
Now, I’m no businessman, so I might be wrong, but companies like to see a return on their investments, right?
We could see similar deals between NASA and private space companies to courier people and cargo into space (like the COTS program that invigorates partnerships like the one between NASA and SpaceX), but again, we’d need to see significant investment by a government agency: NASA. How to get out of this government-funded loop? Let companies profit from the Moon’s resources — there must be gazillions of dollars to be made from that, right?
You’ll hear many people discuss Helium-3 with huge enthusiasm, which is found in abundance on the lunar surface. Helium-3 is the much-touted fuel for fusion power plants. Fusion power is the world’s cleanest, most abundant energy resource; whoever controls the supply of Helium-3 from the surface of the moon could stand to make trillions!
What about using the Moon as a massive resource of precious metals? After all, the moon is made from the same stuff Earth is made of, gold and platinum should be hiding in that Moon rock. Why not set up vast strip mines and refineries? Hell, it would be far easier to extract raw materials and refine them in-situ on the Moon than mining asteroids.
But once again, there’s a big problem; it would cost far more to extract, refine and transport the material back to Earth (let alone the huge health & safety/insurance concerns with flying the stuff back to Earth, reentering tons of materials over populated regions) than the profit a company could stand to make from such an operation.
So, in summary, to build a Moon base it would cost a lot of money. In the current political and financial climate, there isn’t a cat in hell’s chance of seeing a U.S. government agency like NASA footing the bill. Private investment would need to be found. But companies don’t like risking tens (to hundreds) of billions of dollars unless they can see some potential for profit. A Moon base, for now, is not an investment.
Also, the Outer Space Treaty forbids any nation from “owning” any portion of the Moon — so sending U.S. companies to mine the Moon could be a pretty awkward scenario. This alone invalidates the “American Moon base” idea if it was being used for anything other than science purposes. Seeing a mining operation pop up in the Sea of Tranquility would be like BP building a refinery in the Antarctic. Sure, it can be done, but the international fallout would be horrendous (another factor that might dissuade corporate investment in the first place).
The modern world’s economy is based on growth, profit and the politics they motivate. Making money from space, in the near term, doesn’t involve bases on the Moon. Profit and growth can be found in government contracts and investment in cheap space launch alternatives. Space tourism, in the near-term, is also showing some promise. These areas of growth focus on basic space infrastructure — simply blasting stuff into orbit is a difficult and expensive task, private enterprise is currently innovating to fulfill this need. And they are doing it for profit.
A few decades from now, when our planet finally has a viable, sustainable infrastructure in space, talk of Moon bases and company profits may make more sense. But talk of building a base (let alone a Moon colony) when we don’t even have the rockets or spacecraft to get us there, is a bit like saying I’m moving to Hawaii, but there’s no aircraft or boats to get me there and… oh, by the way… I have to ship the bricks of my house to the middle of the Pacific Ocean so I can actually build a house when I get there.
Try selling that profit-making scheme to the CEO of Home Depot.
This is possibly the most confusing image I have seen since I started writing about human space flight. In the foreground, we have the brand new Ares I crew launch test vehicle for the Constellation Program (a.k.a. the Ares I-X), and in the background we have space shuttle Atlantis awaiting its scheduled Nov. 16th STS-129 launch. Is this going to be a historic scene of the past and future generations of U.S. manned space flight? Or is this going to be an example of how to waste a lot of money very quickly in one launch?
The world should be bubbling over with excitement that we are about to see a brand new launch system take to the skies on Tuesday at 8am EDT (albeit on a suborbital path) but it’s not, as hanging over the Constellation Program is the decision to come from the White House after the Augustine Commission report was released on Thursday. No one expected good news for the Ares I rocket, and nothing much has changed. NASA is developing the wrong rocket for the wrong destination (i.e. the Moon).
On the one hand, I want to see the Constellation Program become the trailblazer of manned spaceflight, but on the other hand I’m concerned that the program is too flawed and too expensive (pretty much in agreement with the Commission). Perhaps a cheaper, more efficient alternative can be implemented to solve our current space exploration woes? NASA definitely needs the support of commercial spaceflight, perhaps a focus on stimulating the commercial sector should take an even higher priority than space station resupply contracts?
There are arguments for and against Constellation, and I haven’t worked out where I stand yet. However, I totally support Norm Augustine’s comments that NASA shouldn’t be “running a trucking service” in low-Earth orbit. That job should be left to commercial spaceflight companies. NASA should be pushing into new frontiers with the most technologically advanced spaceship they can develop.
So, back to this photo. Never before has the term “bitter sweet” been so applicable. I just hope we see a perfect launch on Tuesday, but it may well be the only flight of Constellation (so be sure to wake up early, just in case).
Despite the fact the UK is effectively frozen out of participating in any kind of human spaceflight activity (we can blame Maggie Thatcher for that particular stroke of genius when she masterminded the 1986 Outer Space Act), it would appear Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, has been meeting with the UK’s science minister Lord Drayson to investigate the possibility of establishing a spaceport at Lossiemouth RAF airbase in Scotland.
Central to Galactic’s argument for the Lossiemouth airbase is the fact that the fledgling space tourism business could directly account for 2,000 new jobs in the area. The space industry already supports 68,000 jobs in the UK and contributes £2.4bn to the gross domestic product, so the spaceport would only increase investment and interest in national space endeavours.
This move is supported by Andy Green, chief exec of the software company Logica who is chairing the “Space Innovation and Growth Team” due to report to Drayson in January on ways to stimulate the British space industry. Only a few days ago, Green wrote to Drayson, pushing for a UK space agency and a national space program.
The space sector has grown 9% a year over the past decade, more than three times faster than the economy as a whole. –Jenny Davey, TimesOnline.co.uk
If this plan bares fruit for Richard Branson’s spaceflight dreams, Lossiemouth could become the third international location for Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo combo to take off from. Currently, the New Mexico spaceport is under construction and Branson also plans to fly fee-paying tourists (at $200,000 a pop) through the aurora from Kiruna, Sweden.
When I said this on Twitter today, it struck up a lot of support. It actually came out as a throwaway comment in Wednesday’s Astroengine Live when I was having a rant about the misconception that space exploration is a luxury and not a necessity. If I was debating this now, I’d probably be somewhere between “necessity” and “luxury”. On the one hand it would be nice to have a very wealthy space agency, carrying out unimaginable science throughout the Solar System, colonies on the Moon and Mars, mining asteroids and setting up an interplanetary transportation system. On the other hand, none of these things will be possible unless there is huge (global) public support and political will… Continue reading “Space Exploration Isn’t an Economic Stimulus. It’s a Humanity Stimulus”
On Feb. 24, 2009, a quarter of a billion dollars fell into the Antarctic Ocean.
NASA’s recently completed Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), failed 12 and a half minutes into flight when its upper rocket stage didn’t separate.
The $270 million satellite never made it into space. It did make quite a splash though, filmed for the world to see.
In today’s economic climate, NASA does not need failures like OCO. On Feb. 26, the Obama administration allocated $18.7 billion to NASA in the 2010 budget. “Although that is only half a percent of the total U.S. budget,” says aerospace analyst and founder of the blog spacepolitics.com Dr. Jeff Foust, “to a person like you or me, it’s a lot of money to spend on an agency with problems.” Continue reading “No Bucks for NASA Without Buck Rogers”
Hawaii state officials are seriously considering applying to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for a spaceport licence. According to local media, Hawaii has been approached by four space tourism companies wanting to launch their spaceplanes from the Pacific islands. I’m assuming that includes Rocketship Global (as their promo video was being used in the report), XCOR (as their Lynx would be more than capable of using existing runways) and possibly Virgin Galactic? Richard Branson is making moves to launch passengers through the Aurora Borealis from the Swedish town of Kiruna, why not launch passengers from a tropical location too? Makes perfect sense.
At first, I was a little sceptical about this possibility, after all who really wants spaceplanes blasting into suborbital space from one of the most beautiful locations on the planet? I’ve visited Maui and Oahu, and I would hate to see any (more) damage done to the place. However, these commercial spaceplanes aren’t exactly huge polluters (no more than your average airliner that lands at Honolulu International in any case) and the launches would be a great source of revenue for the islands in the form of taxes (as will be the case in New Mexico) and tourism. And then there’s the possibility of accessing Hawaii via suborbital flightpaths from California and Japan. Flight-time from Hawaii to mainland US will be slashed from five hours to 90 minutes. If that means I can leave my house and be on Waikiki in about two hours… who am I to stand in the way of progress?
Unfortunately a lot of misplaced hope and optimism is placed on commercial spaceflight, so we’ll have to see how the Hawaii Spaceport idea develops before we go getting too excited…
Over the weekend, I discussed the pros and cons of a recent article written by Mars Society President Robert Zubrin. In his discussion for a Washington D.C. political website, he outlined his thoughts on how to enrich the US economy. One of the points raised was the argument that a manned mission to Mars would have a huge economic impact on the USA; creating jobs, invigorating science education and boosting national well being. This is a worthy argument that, in principal, holds a lot of merit. After all, the Apollo Program in the 1960’s had a lasting effect on the US, creating jobs in the aerospace industry, bolstering the economy and creating a generation of highly skilled scientists and engineers.
So why not do Apollo 2.0? Send man to Mars as a measure to recreate the economic benefits generated by the Space Race against the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, no modern government would sensibly invest in such a plan. There is no political incentive to do so (well, no acute incentive that requires the US to “beat” a competing superpower in the race to strategically dominate space).
But what if the recent economic $800+ billion stimulus package could be used to stimulate another, burgeoning sector of space flight, that has both political and financial merit?
Falcon 9 is now fully integrated at the Cape! Today we mated the 5.2 m payload fairing to the Falcon 9 first stage (see below). This was the final step in the integration process—one day ahead of schedule.
With Falcon 9 integrated, our focus shifts to the big launch mount and erector. All the pieces have been delivered, and the coming days will see a tremendous amount of welding to join them all together.
The long hours put in by the SpaceX team over the last several weeks, particularly the folks on the ground at the Cape, are certainly paying off. Once the launch mount and erector are complete, we’ll transfer Falcon 9 on to the erector and raise it to vertical early in 2009. Happy New Year!
And just in case you wanted to see just how quickly this company ships and assembles their rockets, check out the image below. This is the same Falcon 9 first stage as the one above pre-paint-job, before being shipped from the Hawthorn facility in LA, during my visit in October. How time flies…
What an exciting year 2009 is shaping up to be. We are living in historic times for commercial spaceflight, with SpaceX spearheading a new age for space travel…