Elon Musk’s space exploration company SpaceX is about to face its defining moment. On Thursday they will attempt to reuse their Falcon 9 rocket booster to deliver a satellite to orbit.
Around this time last year, the Falcon 9 sent NASA cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) before returning to Earth to land on a floating drone ship off the Florida coast. This will be the first time SpaceX have attempted to reuse one of its rockets.
Space exploration is one of the only forms of transport where the vessel can only be used once. Try and imagine if the same was true of aeroplane travel. Ticket prices would be in the millions thus making that form of transportation out of reach to the masses. It’s the core reason so few people have reached orbit, and the biggest barrier to the human race becoming multi-planetary.
Elon Musk was asked what he felt are the greatest challenges facing humans. Chief amongst his concerns was mankind being bound to one planet, a planet that’s using up it’s resources at a record rate – particularly now Trump is tearing up Obama’s climate change policies.
Tomorrows rocket-reuse attempt is a watershed moment for the aerospace industry, and the result of five years of work from the team at SpaceX. The bulk of their plans for the future rely on efficient and affordable launch capabilities.
In reality, it’s not the entire rocket that’s reused but the bulk of it – in terms of both size and cost. The 14-story tall main body, that contains the primary thruster and most of the fuel, detaches from the rest of the rocket roughly ten minutes after launch, then makes a controlled dive back to Earth (hopefully!)
“This is an especially excising launch because of its first-of-a-kind nature, but the goal remains the safe: to safely and reliably deliver a payload to orbit,” Phil Larson, a former SpaceX employee said.
SpaceX have successfully landed seven rockets back on Earth after sending cargo into orbit. The part that’s being reused at roughly 6:27 (Eastern) on Thursday, was first flown last April. Since returning the Earth, the rocket has been treated and tested several times at SpaceX’s Texas base.
In future, the company expects to be able to reuse rockets at a far quicker pace. It’s an essential prerequisite for Musk’s plans to colonise Mars, a move that could only happen if space exploration is affordable and quick. It currently takes roughly six months to travel from Earth to Mars, but Musk is confident he can reduce this time to eighty days, and eventually less than thirty.
SpaceX estimates that the traditional space exploration approach, like NASA’s Apollo programme, costs roughly $10 billion per person. Musk plans to significantly reduce this cost to around $200,000 per person – the average amount for a home in the U.S., and also the same cost as Virgin Galactic is charging for a quick tourist visit to orbit.
“If they’re successful, it proves that they are able to reuse a rocket which is going to significantly lower their cost, which will allow them to be even more competitive than they are now,” said Bill Ostrove, an aerospace and defence industry analyst at Forecast International.
Musk has spoken at length about his ambitious timeline for colonising mars. He believes that SpaceX will be capable of sending humans safely by 2025, and that inaugural flight will be able to take roughly one hundred humans. However, all of these future plans are reliant on a successful launch tomorrow.
The flight is scheduled for 6:30 but with a two-hour launch time, meaning it could launch anytime before 8:30. It’s believed that there’s a 70 per cent of favourable weather. Make sure you tune into what could be one of the pivotal moments in the future, and prosperity, of the human race.