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Space Matter(s): SpaceX and Revolutionizing Spaceflight One Dollar at a Time

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Space Matter(s): SpaceX and Revolutionizing Spaceflight One Dollar at a Time

Space Matter(s) is a weekly column that delves into space science and the mechanics of spaceflight. From the latest discoveries in the universe around us to the fits and starts of rocket test flights, you’ll find analysis, discussion, and an eternal optimism about space and launching ourselves into the cosmos.

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In 2008, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 1 rocket into space, signaling the beginning of the era of private spaceflight. Since then, the company has racked up milestone after milestone. In 2010, they became the first private company to successfully send a spacecraft (the Dragon capsule) into orbit and then recover it for reuse. And in 2012, Dragon became the first private spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station. It’s an impressive list of achievements, to be sure.

1. falcon 9 liftoff.jpg Image: Courtesy of SpaceX

The key to SpaceX’s success (besides the charismatic leadership of Elon Musk, which shouldn’t be discounted) is in its goal: to make spaceflight cheaper. Right now, if you wanted to launch something into space aboard the Falcon 9 rocket, it costs about $2,500 per pound. On the Falcon Heavy (a new rocket under development that would have much larger capacity—second only to the Saturn V that took us to the moon), Musk estimates that it will cost just $1,000 per pound. Now, this might seem like a lot of money, but for comparison’s sake, it took roughly $10,000 per pound to send anything up on the space shuttle. SpaceX’s prices are rock bottom, and it’s actually putting pressure on competitors to lower their prices as well. (Musk has gone on the record as saying that he thinks even $1,000 per pound is too expensive—and would like to eventually reach a price of $100 per pound).

SpaceX is also focusing on reusability to keep launch prices down. The space shuttles were reusable, but they were so fragile that they basically had to be stripped down and rebuilt between each flight—an expensive proposition. Capsules are more reliable and more hardy. Though Dragon hasn’t been reused yet (NASA’s contract calls for a new spacecraft for each mission), it will, and that will lower operating costs substantially for flights involving private companies.

2. dragon capsule.jpg Image: Courtesy of SpaceX

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But it’s not just capsules that are being reused; SpaceX is also reusing the first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket. Each stage of a rocket has its own engines and fuel. The first stage of a multi-stage rocket is usually the largest; it has the most thrust (the force that moves the rocket through the air). When you’re launching something, you need the most thrust at sea level; as you get higher up and the atmosphere gets thinner, it’s easier for a rocket to escape the clutches of Earth’s gravity. After the fuel for a stage is spent, that stage is released from the rocket (usually via a small explosion), cutting down on the weight the next stage has to drag upwards.

Falcon 9 rockets are two-stage rockets, and in their latest model, the first stage is actually reusable. After the first stage detaches from the Falcon 9 (still within the Earth’s atmosphere), it engages a series of engine burns to fly itself to a designated landing spot. Once in place, the rocket uses landing thrusters to guide itself to a gentle (or sometimes not-so-gentle) vertical landing. It’s genuinely impressive, especially considering the number of successful landings that SpaceX has achieved (six, at the time of writing). Reusing the first stage of the rocket is another significant cost decrease; the first mission from a commercial satellite operator, SES, on a “flight-proven” Falcon 9 (SpaceX’s term for the already-flown and landed rockets) is scheduled for 2017.

3. first stage landing.jpg Image: Courtesy of SpaceX

But while SpaceX is doing amazing things, they have also had their share of setbacks. The Falcon 9 is currently grounded after a rocket exploded on the launch pad on September 1; thankfully, no one was injured. SpaceX has been scrambling to pinpoint the cause of the accident, without much success. The prevailing theory surrounds the construction of the helium tanks, and the temperature to which the liquid oxygen fuel is cooled, but they’ve been unable to give us a precise cause.

Currently, the Falcon 9 is scheduled to return to flight in early January, but without a concrete reason for the rocket’s explosion, it’s unclear whether the FAA will license them to fly. It’s likely that it will happen, but it’s worth remembering that every delay, every accident has a cost. When the Falcon 9 exploded on the launch pad, it took its very expensive satellite payload ($200 million) with it. That’s not something potential clients like to see, and one company, Inmarsat, has already jumped ship to a SpaceX competitor after multiple delays.

4. rockets in hanger.jpg Image: Courtesy of SpaceX

There are many bright spots on the horizon for private spaceflight more broadly, and SpaceX more specifically. A company with that much ambition, led by a man with real vision, can achieve a great deal. It’s hard not to admire what SpaceX has achieved in less than a decade, but it’s also important to remember that catastrophic failure is all too easy when it comes to rocket science. But, for now, it’s interesting to see how SpaceX is affecting the private spaceflight marketplace with its low-cost approach to space travel.

Top Photo: SpaceX

Swapna Krishna is a freelance writer, editor, and giant space/sci-fi geek.

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