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.”
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll probably know my (conflicted) feelings about Elon Musk blasting his cherry red Tesla roadster into space. But there’s one angle of the whole “I’m a billionaire and it’s my rocket company, I can do what the hell I like” saga I hadn’t considered: That same red roadster was carrying a potential biological weapon into space.
Conversely, it might be the biological equivalent of Noah’s Ark.
As the vehicle wasn’t designed (or, indeed, intended) for a planetary encounter (whether that be Mars, Earth or some random asteroid), NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection had no jurisdiction over the test launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Feb. 6. The Tesla roadster acted as the test mass for the launch, outfitted with a space-suited mannequin (or not) — a.k.a. “Starman” — with David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” playing on the radio and a “Don’t Panic” homage to Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” showing on the car’s display. There was a lot going on with that controversial launch, but no one can dispute that it wasn’t a marketing masterstroke.
As a bonus, I even saw the Falcon upper stage carry out its third burn that evening over Los Angeles during my night run, hours after the Florida launch:
So, back to planetary protection. Or, more precisely, lack thereof.
“Even if they radiated the outside, the engine would be dirty,” said Jay Melosh, professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences at Purdue University, in a statement on Tuesday. “Cars aren’t assembled clean. And even then, there’s a big difference between clean and sterile.”
Also, this wan’t a new car. And no number of details would have removed terrestrial bacteria from the wheels, engine, upholstery and uncountable nooks and crannies bacteria have set up home. And if it’s been driven on Los Angeles roads… well, yuck. Put simply, this car wasn’t subject to the rigorous sterilization procedures spacecraft are subject to.
Space roadster proponents will probably argue that this car isn’t intended to launch a germy invasion party to any planetary body; it was blasted into open space and not likely to hit anything solid for millions of years. It’s just going to be an artificial satellite of the Sun, nothing more.
Bacteria are hardy little buggers and even the frozen radioactive vacuum of space wont be enough to eradicate every microbe from inside that vehicle. Many strains of microbe will simply shut down and hibernate for extreme periods of time until they get heated back up and watered. And, as far as I’m aware, there was no attempt by SpaceX at protecting the extraterrestrial neighborhood from humanity’s germs (besides, why would they?), so there is likely a menagerie of microbial biomass hitching a ride.
Some scientists, being optimistic beings, view this differently, however. Far from being a germ-bomb waiting to smear its humanity’s snot over the pristine slopes of Olympus Mons, the Tesla might actually be a clever way of backing up Earth’s genetic information for the eons to come, regardless of what happens to life on Earth.
“The load of bacteria on the Tesla could be considered a biothreat, or a backup copy of life on Earth,” said Alina Alexeenko, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue, who specializes in freeze-drying bacteria.
There’s a larger question here, beyond the hype and the probability that the roadster will be a harmless addition to the Sun’s asteroid family; as commercial spaceflight is obviously in its infancy, who’s job is it to ensure payloads are clean? Is it even a priority? Sure, this SpaceX launch won’t likely hit Mars or even Earth, but what about future “test” launches?
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.
Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, saw a perfect launch of its Falcon 9 rocket. Sporting nine Merlin engines — engines designed and built in-house — the rocket blasted off exactly as planned even though the first launch attempt on Saturday was scrubbed. The “failed” attempt — that was aborted automatically in the last second due to a faulty valve in number 5 engine — was actually a success unto itself; a means of ensuring the launch abort systems were working as they should.
But Saturday is a distant memory as, at right at this moment, there’s an unmanned spacecraft chasing after the International Space Station set for a historic orbital rendezvous in three days time. The Falcon 9 operated as it should and so has the Dragon capsule. So far.
Assuming everything else goes to plan, what does this mission mean for the future of spaceflight?
This is no silver bullet to solve all our spaceflight woes, but it could be the start of something a little bit special. Elon Musk, Internet entrepraneur and SpaceX CEO, has no qualms about thinking big. His enthusiasm for space exploration is infectious and his eye for applying a business model to rocket science is, so far, genius. In a world driven by politics and money, he’s found a way of tying the two together to give the noble effort of pushing mankind’s frontiers an accelerated start. He’s eying Mars. If SpaceX can build rockets and spaceships, perhaps companies, governments and institutions will buy his company’s services to travel through interplanetary space.
Does this mean Mars “taxi rides” are in our future? Perhaps.
But spaceflight history is littered with failed start-ups, accidents and expense, so time will only tell how far SpaceX and other private spaceflight companies can push mankind’s exploration envelope.
It may be too early to get excited over seeing the Dragon docked to the ISS, but the importance of such an event shouldn’t be ignored. Once SpaceX proves it can be done, this could be a paradigm shift. Space exploration could be driven by enterprise and exploration, potentially transforming us into a multi-planetary species.
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.
I was only half joking when I tweeted, “Vote for your favorite NASA accomplishment in 2009: http://bit.ly/83xWlJ [x] Still existing.” I was referring to a vote that is being held over on iTWire, where they’ve listed an array of NASA endeavors and then asked their readers to pick their favorite mission/discovery.
To be honest, I wouldn’t have a clue about how to choose between a Mercury flyby, precision-bombing of the Moon or detection Martian methane; all endeavors have enormous merit and each have vastly improved our knowledge of the Universe. Each is as profound as the other. But it’s not the vote of a 3 page list of NASA achievements that I found myself most uneasy with, it’s the fact that none of these achievements can make the future of the world’s premier space agency any more secure, especially when we are talking about orbiting U.S. astronauts.
There’s a strange dichotomy of opinion: NASA is globally renowned and respected for carrying out outstanding science, and yet it is constantly lambasted (often unfairly) for its spaceflight ineptitude.
Shuttle Out. Space Station Out?
The catalyst to NASA’s human spaceflight problems is of course the retirement of the shuttle next year. We’ve seen it coming for a long time and yet the “5-year gap” hasn’t budged, in fact, it’s become a lot bigger. This gap is the number of years between the shuttle being retired and the proposed completion of NASA’s next launch system, Constellation. To fill this gap, the U.S. must use the Russian Soyuz vehicle at a premium rate. One can only imagine the diplomatic fun NASA has in store for the next few years.
And why should NASA maintain its human spaceflight program anyway? You remember the International Space Station (ISS), right? Well, it’s a good idea to have access to the biggest space station ever constructed in Earth-orbit after spending billions to build the thing. Unfortunately, the very foundations of the ISS are looking a little shaky.
Here we are with the world’s most expensive real estate zooming over our heads, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just told the White House that the U.S. taxpayer is getting a raw deal from International Space Station (ISS) science. This obviously doesn’t sound good for the ISS’ future beyond 2015. (That is, if you can still comprehend that the space station is still slated for decommissioning in five years time.)
I only have a general idea about what information the GAO has access to, but I know that the ISS is doing continuous science in microgravity to better our understanding about how we operate in space and use instrumentation that have a huge advantage over ground-based techniques. Unfortunately, NASA is a political entity and politicians are eying the space station with more than a little skepticism. As pointed out by Greg Fish over at Weird Things, wasn’t the ISS supposed to the stepping stone to the Moon… or even Mars by now? Not so long ago I remember intense excitement for how the ISS was going to change the world. Shockingly, now I sometimes hear people say: “we have a space station?!”
To make matters worse, the shuttle replacement is underfunded and behind schedule and the shadow of doubt over Constellation is becoming blacker than a moonless night. NASA triumphantly launched the Ares I-X, only for the celebrations to be quenched by critics (including ex-Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin calling it “slight-of-hand rocketry“) pointing out that the Ares test launch was a publicity stunt at best. At worst, the space agency was conning the American public into thinking progress was being made.
Whether NASA makes any kind of Constellation progress or continues to perform outstanding science on the ISS, it seems that there is a widening disconnect between NASA science and the perception of what NASA is trying to do. Many argue that NASA is just really bad at communicating science to a public audience, but I would say that the agency is doing more than ever to communicate their stuff. Also, NASA does an awful lot more than just getting astronauts into space — their robotic missions, observatories, space telescopes and research are breaking new ground every day. So why the huge question mark hanging over NASA’s human spaceflight plans?
Well, getting man into space is dangerous, it’s expensive and it’s long-term. All of which are not good for the political nature of NASA. In 2004, President Bush made the gargantuan promise that the US would make it back to the Moon by 2020 (and Mars soon after). This sounds great, but there was no money. Bush had made a political decision based on his term in office, he had also made it after the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy when seven astronauts lost their lives. Back then, NASA needed direction more than ever, especially as the shuttle fleet was grounded.
Although the shuttle missions recommenced and NASA got back to leading space station construction, by 2009 Bush’s “Vision” has become nothing more than a pipe dream. The money that was promised never materialized and it is now up to President Obama to get NASA’s human spaceflight plans back on its feet. But the damage has been done and the U.S. has an ailing economy and lumped with an overpriced Constellation Program. Changes need to be made.
Personally, I don’t see the Constellation Program getting off the starting blocks. But I don’t think this is due to any kind of technical or design issue, it will be purely political. Funds are tight, Constellation is too expensive. Sadly, adding insult to injury, the ISS is also in the firing line.
So now the responsibility for U.S. participation in the ISS falls on the shoulders of the burgeoning private spaceflight sector, which in itself could be a revolution in the making. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a real commercial answer to the human spaceflight problem? Using companies like SpaceX to ferry astronauts to-and-from the ISS makes a lot more sense than NASA doing the same job for way more money.
But again, I have that nagging feeling about a genuine disconnect between the public and the importance of spaceflight. Not only can human spaceflight advance human experience, it can boost our economy, education and technology. Last time I looked, those were very political sectors, it’s just unfortunate that politicians and many voters will never understand the correlation.
Now, due to a combination of delayed paperwork and overruns, SpaceX is now looking at a fall launch, several months later than hoped.
“It’s basically dealing with the complexities associated with lifting a new rocket off from a new launch site,” said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell.
According to Shotwell, the huge quantities of safety documentation required by space operations veteran Brig. Gen. Edward Bolton of the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, are unfinished. “There is a huge amount of documentation that gets passed to the range and lots of meetings, and that process just takes a long time,” she added.
Although the rocket remained vertical at the Cape for several days at the start of 2009, SpaceX has since been working on the nine Merlin 1C engines that will need to be integrated into the waiting first stage at Launch Complex 40.
Launching rockets is no easy task, as not only do you need to worry about making the launch a success you have to satisfy a lot of red tape, proving the safety of the vehicle. But this will still be a huge disappointment for SpaceX as the longer the Falcon 9 is grounded, the longer Elon Musk’s company will have to wait for payday.
“We don’t get paid to sit on the ground.” –Shotwell
Fortunately, SpaceX doesn’t give exact launch times until a day or so in advance of lift-off, so hopefully there will be minimal disruption to the projected dates of commercial launches.
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”
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?
For every article written about the amazing advances in space vehicle technology, there are two negative comments about the pointlessness of space exploration. “What’s the point?“, “We have war, famine, poverty and human suffering around the world, why invest billions on space?“, “What’s space exploration ever done for me?“. However, today, after I wrote a pretty innocuous article about the awesome SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket being hoisted vertically on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, I get a comment (anonymous, naturally) starting off with, “This launch and others like it should be halted indefinitely until it’s carbon footprint and environmental impact can be accounted for.” The commenter then goes into something about making an environmental assessment, levying SpaceX’s taxes and setting up a board of environmental scientists. Oh please.
On the one hand, I’m impressed by this person’s spirited stand against environmental damage, carbon emissions and global warming, but on the other, this is probably one of the most misplaced environmentalism attacks I have seen to date. There are extremists on both sides of the “green” debate, but the last thing we need is an attack against the only answer we have to fight climate change. And that answer comes in the form of a cigar shaped polluter, blasting into Earth orbit; whether you like it or not, it is a necessary (yet small) evil… Continue reading “Oh No! Rocket Launches Are Bad for the Environment? We’d Better Stay at Home Then”