Predicting the future has never been easy. Theories about our everyday lives have varied from eerie successes all the way to miserable failures. From the prediction of wireless devices in 1909 (success) to home computers one day being able to weigh a mere 1.5 tons (failure), human society has always been trying to guess what will be the story of tomorrow. In a mindless scroll through Facebook, a live video caught my eye and I was able to witness what may possibly be one of the craziest predictions yet. I was able to watch the launch of a Falcon 9 rocket into space and watch it land back onto a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. The mission was the first of its kind and it proved that companies such as SpaceX can truly reduce the cost of space travel, making our predictions into the final frontier more realistic and imaginable.
But before I get into the nuts and bolts of how Elon Musk is going to push space exploration forward, I think it’s important to understand how SpaceX was able to spread awareness of this aerospace milestone. I, for example, happened to find the event through the organic sharing of a live-stream video through friends on Facebook, which made the whole experience feel pretty special. To be honest, it felt like I was back a few decades when the U.S. watched any sort of space mission like the Apollo 13. I got a sense of exhilaration seeing the rocket stages succeed in real time and seeing the control room members celebrate. If this was a story I heard later on in the news, I don’t think I would’ve had the same excitement. SpaceX’s decision to live-stream their big test, in my opinion, was able to generate genuine interest in space exploration, but at the same time, a live-streamed failure would have served to create a general consensus of doubt for the future. Nowadays, public acceptance has started to play a major role in company value. Videos such as the violent escort of a United Airlines passenger off of his flight has proved to bring the company’s market cap value down by roughly $950 million. While SpaceX is a private company, I still believe public dissent from a failed mission would have brought a major slowdown to the progress towards space travel. Overall, I thought the decision to live-stream was smart. News media is too occupied with Trump and other stories to give the science world the proper broadcast of the events.
Now back to the fun stuff.
This whole rocket launch and landing were meant to prove that the cost of space exploration could be significantly reduced. The big issue with cost has always been with a ships expendable nature. Rockets have always been manufactured for an orbital mission, then thrown out after it’s launch. This means that costs per launch have been dependent on the costs associated with the necessary rockets built for that specific mission. Rockets can vary from tens to hundreds of millions of dollars, which make space missions rare and exclusive. But what if the rockets were reusable?
In the case of the single Falcon 9 rocket that was launched on March 30th, the costs of reusing the rocket reduced overall expenses by about $20 million. On top of that, there are still efficiencies to be improved upon to lower costs even further. The idea is to spread out the big time invest of manufacturing over multiple launches to lower costs of creating the rocket itself. While not all of the rocket can be salvaged, the launch of the Falcon 9 still proves that the 14-story core can land back on Earth to be reused again. This core part of the rocket contains the main engines and the majority of the fuel. Through frequent use, SpaceX will be able to realize it’s full life value and lower its variable cost to fly significantly.
It was a cool experience to watch everything live and even see Elon Musk himself involved with the live-stream. The professional production from top to bottom was extremely well executed and to see the CEO front and center really brought a sense of commitment to the long-term mission.
“It means you can fly and re-fly an orbital class booster, which is the most expensive part of the rocket. This is going to be, ultimately, a huge revolution in spaceflight” – Elon Musk
As for predictions, I think many people don’t realize how soon our race will be able to expand our exploration into the unknown. With the success of reusable rockets, we are beginning to eliminate the constraints that have previously barred our capabilities to fly frequently into space. I don’t find it naive to think we can reach Mars in our lifetime. I’m very excited to see this all play out and I know that I can rely on platforms such as Facebook to keep me in the loop in real time.