I am a progress junky - it's what makes me progressive in the first place. I don't even care in what domain progress occurs so long as it's real and substantive: Social, political, economic, scientific, academic, even artistic. The unfolding of new realities or possibilities is an act of such explosive creative magic that it comes close to touching the essence of life itself, and is an unparalleled tonic that makes life far more worth living even when your only contact with these new things is simply to witness them. So when I say that SpaceX - Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, one of the several revolutionary brainchildren of serial awesome-maker Elon Musk - is the most awesomely awesome thing ever, I'm not engaging in hyperbole. While its immediate accomplishments, though highly impressive on a technical level, might seem pedestrian to the layman, they are merely the tip of the iceberg of what it's pursuing. I would like to break it down for all the non-technical types, and make clear why SpaceX is actually, presently building an unlimited future for humanity.
You may (or may not) have heard about the recent launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and unmanned Dragon spacecraft on Sunday on the company's first contract mission to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). Although there had been a more celebrated test run earlier this summer to prove out the various systems involved, this was the first operational run where the company is being paid as a cargo hauler. The Dragon berthed with the ISS just this morning, in a nice, leisurely, uneventful process that is how professionals prefer (read: desperately hope) things happen in space:
Real exciting, huh? To someone who hasn't followed this stuff intimately for years, that probably looks about as climactic as backing a truck into a cargo terminal at a hundredth the speed - and that's pretty much what it is. The only thing missing to go along with the Dragon's blinking beacon would be a beeping sound, but we'll have to leave it to George Lucas to add that to the videos after the fact. On the surface, so far, what you basically have is an unmanned version of Space Truckers:
But there is a whole world of change taking place beneath the surface of this flight and others like it. First of all, SpaceX is being paid the way that contractors outside of military-industrial contracting are normally paid - for actually delivering the cargo, not just because they say they're putting in an effort. And they're being paid an amount agreed to in advance, not some nebulous variable figure that guarantees a profit: If they screw up and costs go up, SpaceX swallows the overruns, not the taxpayers. This is called a fixed-price contract (the normal way the MIC and NASA do business is a cost-plus contract), and if you don't follow these issues, you have no idea how strongly big aerospace companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and the largely Republican Senators and Congressmen they own fought against such a system being implemented.
These huge cost-plus contractors and their pet politicians have suckled on a system for decades that kept costs astronomical with guaranteed profits and no guaranteed results, and the only reason the original pilot program - Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) - was allowed to happen in the first place was that these people didn't think it would actually work. They love free market rhetoric - after all, it just rationalizes their own profits as something noble even when totally unearned - but people making billions of dollars a year through uncompetitive processes hate actual markets, because markets subject them to the possibility of losing. The moment it became clear that SpaceX was seriously in danger of making something like this become reality, these elements panicked and tried to eviscerate the funding for it and/or select themselves by fiat.
Not long before SpaceX's wildly successful test run, Rep. Frank Wolf (R - VA) - Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee overseeing NASA - had infamously proposed just handing the contract to Boeing sight unseen, who hadn't even built a prototype cargo craft alone flown one. When the test flight of Dragon went off without a hitch, they let out a dejected collective moan, dragged their asses to the podium with the rest of the politicians, and pretended to praise the company they'd just spent the previous year trying to obstruct and defund. They could hardly do otherwise without looking the ass - nothing succeeds like success, and they had a long record of dissing SpaceX to make up for with duplicitous pleasantries now that the company was credible.
Okay, but so what? So NASA spends less on cargo deliveries - we know that cost "savings" in government don't really end up in the places they're needed, they're just swooped upon by parasitic political interests like military, drug enforcement, or dished out as tax cut kickbacks to rich campaign contributors. Well, here's the thing: NASA is not SpaceX's only customer: In fact, unlike pretty much every other major space company, government contracts only account for a fraction of its total business, so the cost savings it creates through applying its 21st-century approach to rocket operations can be experienced by every related field that buys launches: Telecom / entertainment is just the largest, but a lot of other industries are also launch customers.
Because SpaceX was begun with the explicit purpose of radically reducing launch costs, and remains under the private control of Elon Musk, its prices are designed to best serve the growth of the technology and the industry as a whole rather than to maximize quarterly profits as in a fully traded corporation. That is why most of the cost savings realized through its innovations end up going directly toward expanding access to Earth orbit through lower prices (the difference between cost and price is an important nuance of economics that is just one of the facts discrediting trickle-down theory), while the rest goes into new infrastructure and experimental systems designed to reduce costs even further. Already its prices are anywhere from 1/2 to 1/3 those of the prevailing industry, and it continues to suck up business from existing contractors at a prodigious rate in the Falcon 9's launch class: Launch companies all over the world are losing business to SpaceX - it's one of the few businesses in America that actually bothers to compete anymore instead of just selling out to foreign interests by outsourcing. And that's what is possible when you have businessmen who actually give a damn about something more than themselves.
Again, so what? So NASA pays less for cargo, and satellite launches cost 1/2 to 1/3 of the earlier prevailing price - that's hardly the future envisioned in science fiction. Well, the beauty of SpaceX is that they're not operating in the way that businesses typically operate - create a profitable situation, then cash out and make no more progress. SpaceX is designed in the way that companies like AT&T and Boeing used to be run generations ago, before it became more profitable for them to sit on their asses and just rake in the cash on inertia: As engines of continuous technological revolution. And I do mean revolution, not periodic updates that marginally improve the efficiency of subsystems on timescales that just keep getting longer and longer (have you seen the Boeing 787 "Dreamliner" - over a decade of effort to build a somewhat more efficient version of the jet they were flying in 1957). In other words, these cargo flights and 1/2-1/3 prices are nothing - the merest glimmer of a beginning.
Moreover, the promise of greater achievements is not just some nebulous maybe-if future at the footnote of a Powerpoint presentation - they've stated exactly where they're going with this technology and how (in broad terms) they intend to get there. We already know what the next steps for them are, and they've already built and are in the midst of testing prototype systems. And we know it's credible because they already had to make several quantum leaps just to get where they are today. Their first rocket - which, admittedly, failed the first several times they launched it - was a single-engine light-lifter called Falcon 1. It had 1 Merlin 1C 1st stage engine, and a variant of the same technology called a Kestrel engine as the upper stage. It could launch about 420 kg to low-earth orbit (LEO). Its first successful launch (the fourth attempt) was in 2008, and is now retired. Video of that launch:
Here was the scale of the Falcon 1:
Once the company was reasonably confident in its understanding of the Falcon 1, and in particular the Merlin 1C engine, they put nine Merlins together and created the Falcon 9 - a rocket that has succeeded on every flight, including its first in 2010: A mere two years after the first success of its predecessor rocket. The nine in question are merely the 1st stage, with the 2nd stage being another Merlin 1C - albeit one optimized to run in vacuum rather than in atmosphere. For the very first flight of Falcon 9, they used a mockup of the Dragon spacecraft still under development as its payload. Let me say that again: On the first flight of a massively up-scaled rocket derived from a totally new system they'd only got to work two years earlier, they orbited a rough draft of a freaking space capsule they would soon be using to transport cargo to the ISS. Falcon 9 can send 13,150 kg to LEO (remember, the haul for Falcon 1 was 420 kg). Video of the launch - it's much clearer and more eventful than of the Falcon 1, so they had improved the quality of their on-board video system as well:
Scale of the Falcon 9:
Two years after this launch was the fully-operational test flight of the unmanned Dragon spacecraft, where it approached ISS, was grappled and berthed to it, then splashed down and was successfully recovered in the Pacific ocean. As of right now, Dragon has no escape system if the rocket it rides fails - which is just fine for cargo delivery - and it comes back to Earth under parachutes, then splashes down on water. You saw Dragon in space in the very first video above, with its solar wings unfolded. This is what it looks like at various stages of the process - in the hangar, on top of the rocket, inside when full of cargo (the crewed interior would look quite different), and then after recovery:
And that's pretty much where things are right now - but as I said, this is just the tip of the iceberg, and to say the past is prologue would be a bit of an understatement given the things currently under development. First of all, let's start with the next version of the Merlin engine, the Merlin 1D, which will have double-digit-percentage performance improvements over the current 1C and also break the historical record for thrust-to-weight ratio (an important measure of rocket engine performance). Let me repeat that: In some objective metrics, it will be the greatest rocket engine ever developed - although of course there are always tradeoffs. This engine has already undergone test firing, and is just months away from deployment in flight. A test of the Merlin 1D a few months ago:
If I understand correctly, the Merlin 1D will feed into impending changes in the Falcon 9 rocket overall, which SpaceX is calling Falcon 9 v. 1.1 - sounds incremental, doesn't it? Uh, no. They're rearranging the 1st-stage engines from a 3 x 3 square configuration to one with 8 in a circle and 1 in the middle; lengthening the 1st stage fuel tank and interstage section by almost 30 feet; and replacing the Merlin 1Cs with 1Ds, allowing the rocket to send another four metric tons of mass to LEO above the current Falcon 9. And the price-per-kg is actually less than the current version, based on published figures. Scale of the Falcon 9 v. 1.1 (rough estimate based on figures):
But SpaceX is also working on major changes to the Dragon, because they don't just want to use it as a cargo hauler: It was designed from the beginning to be a manned spacecraft, which is why it has many features (e.g., a window) that don't make a lot of sense for something that's just supposed to be a space truck. The plan calls for the manned version of Dragon to be capable of transporting 7 crew to ISS (four seats "above," 3 "below" - which is the same number the Space Shuttle had transported, and way more than the 3 who now fly on Russian Soyuz capsules. This was a rough engineering mockup of a crew version interior, although the reality will probably have a few differences:
They're aiming for 2015 for the first crewed flights, and unlike previous space transportation systems, this one will be available to - and affordable by - more than governments and billionaires. Granted, it will only be affordable to mid-range multi-millionaires and equivalent institutions both corporate and academic - prices per seat I've seen quoted range from $10 million to $20 million initially, although that's lower than the $60 million the Russians are currently charging, and since most of that cost is in the launch, every bit of progress SpaceX makes toward lowering its launch costs will reduce the price of a seat on a manned flight. Another major change will be that unlike Soyuz, the manned Dragon is not quantity-limited: If there is more demand than they can handle with the current amount of Falcon 9s and Dragons, they'll simply build and launch more on a more frequent basis, and the limiting factor will be what the launch range infrastructure can handle.
Also unlike Soyuz, SpaceX plans to reuse Dragon capsules again and again - except for NASA flights, since they're not yet sold on the safety of reusability - so that ones they know to be functional and safe won't have to be thrown away and then an entirely new one certified every time. This would likely reduce costs considerably, and allow SpaceX to iteratively improve the robustness of spacecraft systems since they'll watch them operate over multiple missions. But again, there will still be some limitations on the frequency of launches due to the headaches involved in the antiquated national launch infrastructure they have to work with - rocket ranges built in the 1950s and 1960s, and operating on a pretty similar basis even today.
But what does SpaceX do when something annoys them and gets in the way of progress? Do they accept it as an immutable fact of life, shrug their shoulders, and excuse themselves from further improvements? Nope. Because current launch ranges - even Cape Canaveral in Florida where they currently launch Falcon 9 - are so inadequate, and so regularly produce headaches from all the crap they have to deal with from other launch providers as well as the Air Force, SpaceX has decided to simply build its own spaceport. A launch range built from the ground-up with 21st century operating procedures is likely to be much more efficient, much safer, and also much quicker than other ranges. They haven't settled on a location as yet - although they've paid a lot of attention to Brownsville, Texas - but in truth, there's no reason they can't ultimately build several such facilities. Not enough spacecraft to fill demand? Build more. Not enough rockets to launch the spacecraft? Build more. Not enough ranges to launch the rockets in a timely fashion? Build more.
Of course, Dragon isn't quite ready for manned spaceflights yet. For one thing, it doesn't have a Launch Escape System (LES) or Launch Abort System (LAS) - a way for a crewed Dragon to escape from the Falcon 9 rocket on the pad or in flight in the event of an emergency. In the past, such as with the Apollo program - and to this day on Soyuz - LES tends to be a small rocket on top of the capsule on a little tower, which would fire and pull the capsule off the rocket in an emergency. Like this:
But such rockets, called tractor rockets, are useless in every situation other than a catastrophic emergency, and have to be ejected in flight - basically wasted mass. SpaceX has decided to pursue a different approach, and put rocket engines under the Dragon spacecraft that it can use not only for emergency escape, but for maneuvering in orbit, and even, ultimately, landing back on Earth vertically under power right back at the spaceport where it launched from. The rocket engine under development for this purpose is called SuperDraco, and is a radically upscaled version of the Draco thusters that Dragon currently uses in orbit to maneuver - it's even more powerful than the Kestrel engine that powered the upper stage of the Falcon 1, and eight of them would be packed under Dragon. Video of a SuperDraco test from earlier this year:
Guess what it means if Dragon can land under its own power back at the spaceport? For one, it means SpaceX doesn't have to send out a spotter helicopter and a ship to recover the capsule from the ocean every time it flies, so that's more money saved. It also means the mass of the LES is mission-functional rather than having to be wasted every time. And, oh yeah, I almost forgot: It's a lot easier - a lot easier - to land on the Moon or Mars than to land back on Earth from orbit, so once you're doing the latter, you've pretty much built a system capable of the former too. So while they're working toward an LES for transporting crew to ISS, they're also (a)working toward pinpoint powered landing back on Earth, and (b)landing on the Moon and Mars.
At first it would just be as a platform for lots of scientific payloads - a concept they're referring to as Red Dragon - but if they're using Dragon to both transport people to ISS and transport probes to the Moon and Mars, the next step is pretty obvious. Of course, for deep space missions - which means outside the Earth's protective magnetic field - Dragon would have to be made more robust and have better shielding than the orbital version currently in use, but once they do that to some degree it's not that big a deal to send a Dragon with people in it on a circumlunar flight: It's just more fuel and a bigger heat shield to slow back down when they swing back around to Earth and reenter the atmosphere.
And we don't really know how many of the added costs of circumlunar flight are even necessary or are just part of how NASA arbitrarily chose to make the Apollo architecture work. That's one of the radical things about SpaceX: They don't just accept the decisions and compromises made by previous generations of rocket engineers - they rethink everything, and make their own decisions based on what is possible now. Sending people around the Moon would obviously cost more than just going to LEO, but we don't know how much more - it might be a cost scale similar to just lobbing a satellite to a high orbit rather than a low one, because that's really all you're doing: The Moon's gravity takes care of the rest. The point is, once Dragon is capable of sending people into orbit at all, it's just the slightest extra step to sending them on lunar swingbys: You don't need that much in the way of supplies for a six-day trip.
It would be a lot more cramped than having an Apollo habitat module, but being cooped up in a capsule for a week is no big deal to today's astronauts, and anyone who wants to go into space at all would leap at the chance to accept that kind of discomfort for a circumlunar flight. And that's assuming it's just Dragon, with nothing else attached to it - an assumption that doesn't have to be the case. For one, you could attach another Dragon to it: One whose interior has a few amenities instead of seats. With some kind of connector, you could have several Dragons. All without any radical progress in the basic technology once it's good enough to send people to orbit. But...did I mention the up-scaled engines on the Dragon would be capable of landing on the Moon? And then leaving the Moon again? Of course, that's a bit further along than merely swinging around the Moon - for one thing you need enough fuel to enter lunar orbit and then leave lunar orbit again, so that would be longer-term.
Also, to launch the kind of heavy, large-scale habitat systems and fuel tanks you would need for longer-term missions such as to Mars or building bases on the Moon, you would need a more powerful rocket than even Falcon 9 v. 1.1. Which is why SpaceX is developing one. The Falcon Heavy is a heavy-lift launcher that would compete directly with the most powerful rockets in the world, and is designed to eat the lunch of such majors as Europe's Ariane 5, and ULA's Atlas 5 and Delta IV Heavy. Falcon Heavy could launch 53,000 kg to LEO, 16,000 kg to the Moon, or 14,000 kg to Mars - more capable than any other rocket currently in existence.
Falcon Heavy would have two additional 1st stage cores - each consisting of 9 Merlin 1D engines - strapped on to the sides of the rocket with a second stage that is still just one Merlin 1D, making it essentially a tripling of the Falcon 9 v. 1.1 first stage. Scale of the Falcon Heavy:
You would think having this much on their plate would be ambitious enough for SpaceX. Yes indeed, you would think that. But it isn't. SpaceX is thinking well ahead of Falcon Heavy. They've said they're in development of the Merlin 2 engine, that will be more powerful than the engines on the Saturn V rocket, in order to build a "super-heavy lift" rocket that is as yet unnamed. Conceptual references to this future rocket and all subsequent iterative advances have been referred to as "Falcon X" (letter X, not "10"), "Falcon X Heavy," "Falcon XX," and "Falcon XX Heavy," the last of which is a truly absurd rocket. There's no way of knowing whether they'll even find it useful to go that far. They haven't said much about those in a while, probably to avoid feeding speculation by progress-addicted types like me. But based on the last information presented by SpaceX on the subject, here's the scale of Falcon X:
There's really no point in showing the progression beyond there - you get the idea. It goes well beyond the Saturn V, into territory so Wagnerian I'm not even sure there would be enough demand to sustain it. But clearly SpaceX intends to not just wait around for demand to materialize - they're creating it as we speak, by making space more affordable, more reliable, and more available. In fact, other major space initiatives backed by deep pockets - e.g., Planetary Resources, which intends to scope out and mine asteroids; Stratolaunch, which intends to use a Falcon 9-derived rocket as the orbital stage of a launch system carried to high altitude by the largest aircraft ever built; and Bigelow Aerospace, which intends to deploy inflatable habitats in space for use by private customers or governments (and has already orbited two prototypes) - have organized their plans around those of SpaceX. So once SpaceX really gets going, a lot of other programs - and the money being invested in them - kick in. This could lead to some unprecedented synergy, given the sheer amount of money being invested in these other programs. Promotional videos for a couple of these other companies that will be enabled by SpaceX:
And that's without the other project SpaceX is pursuing - full reusability of its rockets. This doesn't sound very important to a layman - Star Trek never made an episode about reusability, as far as I know. But in fact it's pretty much the key to everything, and the main reason space travel has progressed so slowly or even gone backwards since its inception. If you had to make a new plane after every flight, flying from New York to Paris without cutting safety corners would cost a hundred thousand dollars a seat, and one out of every few thousand flights would still end in catastrophe because you couldn't afford the kind of real-world testing that constant flying provides.
Full, rapid reusability of an orbital rocket is the holy grail of rocketry, and in more ways than one - rich people have lost their shirts pursuing it; NASA lost decades chasing after it in the wrong way; and it still has never really been achieved. The Space Shuttle, although partially reusable, was such a politically-designed monstrosity that it ended up costing an order of magnitude more than other rockets. ULA (the legal monopoly on large Air Force launches owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing) tried to pursue reusability through incremental changes in throwaway rockets - a system devised with the Air Force called the Evolved Expandable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program - but because EELV launches are based on cost-plus contracts and a conservative, establishmentarian company with huge guaranteed revenue streams, it never had any incentive to make it work. EELVs are very reliable, but their costs just keep going up, and up, and up - which is why, as far as I know, ULA has no private customers, and they basically exist because American taxpayers fund them.
The problem is that reusability is HAAAAAAAAAAARD - much harder than spaceflight itself. It's the "rocket science" of rocket science. Once a rocket reaches the kind of speeds involved in getting close to orbital velocity, the spent stages that are sent back into the atmosphere hit it like bellyflopping on a placid ocean after jumping off a skyscraper - they're ripped to shreds. To make rocket stages strong enough to not only survive reentry and be recovered, but robust enough to be used again in a way that doesn't involve huge additional costs, you have to add considerable mass to them that reduces the amount of payload you can send. But if you can do it, that payload reduction doesn't matter, because the cost per launch ends up being a hundred times lower so you can just launch over and over - the total amount of mass you can send up over multiple launches with the same money ends up being way higher.
But again, it's hard, and corporations who already have lots of money and are driven by quarterly stock figures don't do hard - at least not in comparative terms. They do what they know how to do already, and know for a fact they can succeed at. As a result, the desire to pursue reusability has never been in the same place as the money to achieve it. Until now. Even Elon Musk wasn't sure whether it was possible, but he had his people look at it in-depth and finally came to the conclusion that it could be done, so they're doing it step-by-step. Their approach is first to focus on making the 1st stage reusable, since succeeding at that would significantly reduce costs even without doing the same for the second stage. What they intend to do is give the 1st stage the power to reignite once it separates from the rest of the rocket, using a little extra fuel, and then land itself back at the launch site. This is called a "flyback booster."
The first test article they've constructed for this technology is called Grasshopper, and it's basically a Falcon 9 first stage fuel tank with only one Merlin 1D engine and some bug-looking landing legs. It's just the first demonstrator vehicle - subsequent versions will supposedly have the full complement of 9 engines - and an ambitious test flight program is planned for it. So far they've only flown it on a little six-foot hop off the pad, so brief that you can barely see it through the smoke:
Subsequent test flights will be up to hundreds, then thousands of feet, although in the immediate future will be limited by the FAA permit under which they're currently operating. However, there are plans to go supersonic on this vehicle - which would probably involve including some kind of nosecone on the thing, obviously. Right now it's just a blunt cylinder, since there's no need to be concerned with aerodynamics. SpaceX anticipates that it will take several years to get this technology to the point of incorporation in an operational Falcon 9 flight, but it will be worth the wait given the potential advantages to spaceflight. And, of course, any advances made in the guidance and control software for the stage can only benefit similar software used for the same functions on future versions of Dragon and other spacecraft designed to takeoff and land vertically.
Most people familiar with VTVL (vertical takeoff, vertical landing) rocketry expect test articles like this to fail spectacularly at some point - it's one of the hallmarks of real experimentation in rocketry, that before SpaceX had largely been abandoned in favor of "failure is not an option" - so I wouldn't be surprised if Grasshopper ends a venerable career of test flights at some point in a glorious ball of fire, but if/when that happens it wouldn't be a failure: Just another stage in the process of development. Nonetheless, there are much higher altitude flights to look forward to with Grasshopper, and then the development of the full-up demonstrator vehicle with nine engines that will simulate an actual stage first stage. Although SpaceX hasn't laid out an exact process for its development, we can assume that after that demonstrator would come incorporation in operational flights.
They haven't said how or when they intend to pursue reusability in the second stage, although the promotional videos they've released show it happening along pretty similar lines: Basically the spent stage has a little extra fuel left over, reignites after separation, and then lands itself. Although the second stage would be traveling faster than the first, it's also lighter and smaller, so I would guess it will be easier for them to go from having a reusable 1st stage to making a reusable 2nd than to make the 1st work in the first place. Once they can do reusability at all, they probably would have the tools to apply it generally. They wisely don't commit to timetables on these developments though - they just dare everything, work their asses off, and every once a while pull off miraculous progress.
And where do they go from there? Where do they go from these incredibly ambitious, shockingly credible developments? Well, Elon Musk says he thinks human landings on Mars will be practical in 15 years. He doesn't just "hope" so - he think so, based on his experiences making all this stuff happen, putting together teams of the best talent, and working on so many different impossible problems at once (not to mention his little electric car company that you may have heard of). And if he's right about that, the Moon is probably within reach a lot sooner - and on a much bigger scale than Apollo could have ever hoped for - while the number of humans in Earth orbit starts to scale geometrically. Nothing is guaranteed, but it really doesn't have to be: Whatever is possible, SpaceX is designed and determined to find it.