Elon Musk, Founder, CEO & CTO
Humans have always wondered and imagined by looking into the night sky and dreamed about space and its constituents. However, by the end of the 20th century, rockets were developed, which were powerful enough to overcome the gravitational force to reach orbital velocities, paving the way for space exploration to become a reality. A spacecraft looks cool when somebody watches it fly over them towards the vast galactic universe, it all appears to be a mere dream and it seems like a bit of Hollywood CGI than an actual machine. Soon, the concept of private spaceflight emerged and companies across the globe have been taking an active part in the industry since 1962 when NASA first launched the privately-built satellite. Modern space exploration is reaching areas and trying to discover planets that are habitual for humans to live in the future. Thus, Mars became the focal point of today’s space exploration, and manned Mars exploration has been a long-term goal of the U.S. NASA is planning for sending humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s. However, not many of us dream of launching a car in the space and make space travel as easy as hopping on a plane, unless that person is Elon Musk, the founder, CEO and CTO of SpaceX who envisions to establish a human colony in Mars. Nearly two decades after the inception of SpaceX, it’s getting closer to achieving that goal while accomplishing plenty of other milestones along the way. “I think fundamentally the future is vastly more exciting and interesting if we’re a spacefaring civilization and a multi-planet species than if we are or not. You want to be inspired by things. You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great. And that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about,” says Musk.
The Bold Timeline For Getting into Space
In the early 2002, Musk was pursuing his lifelong grand scheme to rekindle public interest in sending humans to Mars. Having degrees in physics and business, he wanted to establish life by placing a small greenhouse laden with seeds and nutrient gel on the Martian surface. But, the real problem was not the lander itself; instead, it was how to launch it. Meanwhile, U.S companies were demanding a high amount for which Musk decided to visit Russia to buy a refurbished Dnepr missile, but eventually, he realized that the deal-making in the wild west of Russian capitalism is financially risky. Being disappointed, he thought, why rockets were so expensive and tried to understand how he can collect all the raw materials and arrange all the atoms to put it into the rocket shape. Soon after that, Musk, with a handful of veteran space engineers, formed Space Exploration Technologies or SpaceX. “When starting SpaceX, I thought the odds of success were less than 10%, and I just accepted that I would probably just lose everything. But that maybe we would make some progress. If we could just move the ball forward, even if we did some other company could pick up the baton and keep moving it forward. So that would still do some good,” comments Musk. It has two astonishingly ambitious goals: To make spaceflight routine and affordable, and to make humans a multi-planet species. “We started off with just a few people who really didn’t know how to make rockets. And the reason that I ended up being the chief engineer or chief designer, was not because I want to, it’s because I couldn’t hire anyone. Nobody good would join. So I ended up being that by default. And I messed up the first three launches,” asserts Musk.
Where it all Began
Today, SpaceX has 1,500 employees and occupies a half-million-square-foot facility in Hawthorne, California. Initially, the company entered the space technology arena with its Falcon 1 rocket, which a two-stage liquid-fuelled craft designed to send small satellites into the orbit. It was cheaper to build and operate than its competitors, a field populated mainly by spacecraft built by publicly owned and government-funded companies such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The part of the rocket’s cost-effectiveness was made possible by the SpaceX-developed Merlin engine, which is a cheaper alternative than the components used by other companies. SpaceX made its first Falcon 1 launch in March 2006, which began successfully but ended prematurely because of a fuel leak and fire. The company had already earned millions of dollars in launching orders, out of which many of them were from the U.S. government. Simultaneously, SpaceX was also concentrating on making reusable rockets. But, Falcon 1 failed to attain the Earth’s orbit in March 2007 and August 2008. However, in September 2008 SpaceX became the first privately owned company to send a liquid-fuelled rocket into the orbit. Later it won a NASA contract for servicing the ISS that was worth more than $1 billion. However, SpaceX first launched its Falcon 9 in 2010, which is a bigger craft named for its use of nine engines. In December 2010 the company attained another milestone by becoming the first commercial company to release a spacecraft, the Dragon capsule into the orbit and successfully return it to Earth. It became the first commercial spacecraft to dock with the ISS, where it successfully delivered cargo.
Additionally, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 successfully returned to Earth near its launch site. It was designed in such a way so that it can be re-used. SpaceX started using drone ships for rocket stage landings in 2016, and the rocket stage was successfully re-used in a 2017 launch. Also, a Dragon capsule was reused on a flight to the ISS during the same year and the Falcon Heavy rocket was tested for the first time in 2018.
The Holy Grail: Reusable Rockets are the Future
In 2015, reusable rockets were regarded as impractical by many international agencies. But SpaceX under the leadership of Musk, made them as their part of doing business. Musk states that SpaceX’s Block 5 Falcon 9s can be used for launching for 100 times with a minimal amount of refurbishment. Therefore, SpaceX has flown new boosters 28 times since 2017 and has successfully launched or re-used “flight proven,” boosters for 22 times. It has only failed to recover two of its boosters during that period.
The company is planning to use reusable boosters more often in the years ahead as Musk highlights that their latest rockets can be flown as many as ten times. There are also certain debates regarding the savings provided by reusability versus the expendable rockets used by competitors such as United Launch Alliance or Arianespace. Various industry sources predict that SpaceX will likely to save around ten million dollars compared to building an entirely new booster. Additionally, SpaceX is currently the only rocket-maker company to use reusable vehicles to date. However, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is presently in the designing stage where they are manufacturing a giant rocket booster intended to be reusable, which is unlikely to fly until 2021.
SpaceX believes that a fully and rapidly reusable rocket is the pivotal breakthrough needed to reduce the cost of space access. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket currently carries a list price of about $54 million, and the cost of fuel for each flight is only around $200,000, which is about 0.4% of the total.
Compared to a commercial airliner, each new plane costs about the same as Falcon 9. However, it can fly multiple times per day and can be used for tens of thousands of flights over its lifetime. Therefore, Musk believes that a commercial model and a rapidly reusable space launch vehicle can drastically minimize the cost of reaching Earth orbit by a hundredfold. “With respect to space, I think there’s really just one problem, which is a fully and rapidly reusable orbital rocket. This is the holy grail,” Musk comments. He adds, “A giant reusable craft costs much less than a small expendable craft.”
The Space Business: Beginning of an Era of Space Connectivity
The biggest challenge to SpaceX’s growing constellation of internet satellites are the astronomers. Researchers have expressed that their work may get hampered by the plans of SpaceX and other companies if they start to launch tens of thousands of new satellites. “We do not yet understand the impact of thousands of these visible satellites scattered across the night sky and despite their good intentions, these satellite constellations may threaten both (optical and radio astronomy),” the International Astronomical Union said shortly after the first launch of Starlink satellites last year.
Moreover, in order to operate around 30,000 satellites at a specific frequency, power level, and location in space, SpaceX has requested permission from an international regulatory group. The company got approvals for 12,000 satellites from the U.S. government and has already deployed around 60 new satellites to the Starlink network on a rocket launched from Cape Canaveral. There are 177 Starlink spacecraft, which are now orbiting the planet, and the company expects to have nearly 500 in position by the end of this year, which will allow internet services to the people on the ground.
"I think fundamentally the future is vastly more exciting and interesting if we’re a spacefaring civilization and a multi-planet species than if we are or not"
On the other hand, the global internet connectivity market is worth about $1 trillion. Musk estimated that with the company’s Starlink satellite constellation, SpaceX could capture at least 3% or $30 billion of that sector. He also intends to use the revenue generated from Starlink to fund his project: a Mars spaceship known as Starship that would be capable of ferrying up to 100 people to the red planet. The company has already started building prototypes of that spaceship near Boca Chica Beach in Texas and Cocoa, Fla. But, SpaceX does face certain technical challenges to make the high-tech satellite components cheaply enough to be affordable for users. However, SpaceX still didn’t sign up for any customers. It is mainly because the company wants to wait until the system starts working well then they will approach toward governments or telecommunications companies for partnership.
A lot of Promises to be Kept
As the U.S. is on the verge of holding the next presidential election, SpaceX is planning heavily on the next stage of Starship tests. The tests will cover the booster, as well as high altitude, high-velocity flights, and the entire team is expected to conduct several test flights before actually placing anyone on board. Also, an orbital Starship could make its flight debut by this year as well. The ships will be used to put power, mining, and life support infrastructure for future flights and would also confirm about water resources and identify hazards. Also, SpaceX’s new version Starship (and its Super Heavy booster) can carry up to 100 people to the moon, Mars or other destinations. It is completely reusable and stands around 387 feet tall with quick turnarounds. Interestingly, SpaceX unveiled that this will be the rocket which will launch the billionaire Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa with a handful of artists on a trip around the moon in 2023. Based on Musk’s prediction, this will be a game-changing event which is not specifically a Mars-focused mission, but its success would bode well for a future manned mission.