The Future of SpaceX… and Beyond

Ryan Zhang ‘20

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SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, is a private organization founded by Elon Musk. A South African-born entrepreneur with degrees in both business and physics, Elon Musk started off as a co-founder of PayPal, a company that he successfully sold for a large profit, and has since founded Tesla Motors and SolarCity. He founded SpaceX when he saw NASA began retreating from launching spacecrafts due to budget constraints and the government shifted national priorities from space exploration. He jumped at the opportunity and founded SpaceX putting him in competition with more established companies such as Boeing and Orbital Sciences. Since its founding, SpaceX has achieved many successes including being the first private company to launch a shipment into orbit and return it to Earth intact. Due to their ability to manage prices well, they can succeed.

One of SpaceX’s greatest advantages is its price management. The company’s own factory floor produces about 80% of the parts in any SpaceX rocket, reducing the cost of outsourcing. This keeps the price per pound of payload down and ensures quality control in-house. One study conducted by NASA and the Air Force estimated that the Falcon 9 rocket (from SpaceX), had cost $440 million from initial design to launch; NASA would have had to pay triple the cost to create that rocket. When asked about her opinions, Sameera Mathias ‘20 believes that “SpaceX is a rising star among these space organizations.” Even though it is a relatively new company, it “may even surpass other companies” with their superior quality/cost ratio and success in rocket launches. SpaceX’s spacecrafts’ reusability is another great part of their price-reduction. After a cleanup, check, and configuration, these spacecrafts can be used for another flight. One of these reusable spacecrafts was the Dragon.

One of SpaceX’s early successes, the Dragon, is a free-flying spacecraft designed for unmanned cargo runs and the transportation of people. It made history in 2012 when it became the first commercial spacecraft to deliver cargo to the International Space Station and returned safely to the Earth. Previously, only government-funded institutions could achieve this feat. It is also the only spacecraft currently in operation that has the ability to return significant amounts of cargo to Earth. The first manned test flight takes place as early as 2018. Although it has proved its space-worthiness by performing multiple cargo runs, it has yet to prove the functionality of its life support systems. Another one of SpaceX’s successes was the Falcon 9.

Another successful rocket, the Falcon 9, is the first orbital class rocket capable of reflight. This follows SpaceX’s greatest belief that rocket reusability is the key breakthrough needed to reduce the cost of access to space. The creation of the Falcon 9 also led to the creation of the Falcon Heavy.

Now, SpaceX is working on another rocket, the Falcon Heavy. Composed of three Falcon 9 nine-engine cores, whose 27 Merlin engines together generate more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, the Falcon Heavy was designed to carry humans into space and restores the possibility of flying missions with crew to the Moon or Mars. This vehicle can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational spacecraft, the Delta IV Heavy at one-third the cost. Of course, the first launch has yet to occur. Although it was set to launch January 20th, 2018, there is still hesitation due to past failures.

One factor that may lead to SpaceX’s hesitation is that they do not want a repeat of the Falcon 9 explosion in September 2014. They need to continue to build a record of safe launches. Although they recovered from the September explosion, this launch is much more crucial, and costly if they fail. SpaceX has set their sights high and plans to put people into space commercially.

Elon Musk has repeated the desire to put people on Mars and he hopes to do so with Falcon Heavy. He projects that the initial ticket price to fly humans will be $500,000 per seat. Despite his bold claims, Musk does not yet have the capabilities of making a Mars mission achievable. I, Forest Huang ‘21 would be excited to go, saying “I think it is very exciting to hear that one day we might be able to go to Mars.” With so many new possibilities, “who knows what’s in store?” Elon Musk has stated that his goal is to be able to put humans on Mars by 2026. While many people might be going for tourism, the amount of scientific research to be conducted there is immense. Would the planet be a possible substitute for Earth? Will there be unknown lifeforms already there? The questions that need to be answered are astronomical and it would be a huge leap for science to see what Mars beholds, and for human race, it is tantalizing to think there could be another planet to inhabit in this vast universe

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