Why is SpaceX’s recent barge landing such a big deal? Here’s a simple summary:
Elon Musk & Co. performed a feat never before accomplished in human history -- not just returning a rocket from orbital flight to Earth intact (SpaceX did that way back in December), but returning it to hit a moving target.
But the bigger picture is even more simple: Money. If we did drives into town the way we do launches into space, we’d design and lovingly craft a brand new Lamborghini or a top of the line Ferrari for the ride, and then dump it on the bottom of the ocean after the first trip. That would add up, especially since a ground-to-orbit rocket costs hundreds of times what a brand new Lambo costs. In a recent article for the investment website Motley Fool, Rich Smith lays out some numbers—starting with an estimate on what a ground-to-orbit launch costs SpaceX now:
[A]n average Falcon 9 launch currently costs $61.2 million. (The new Falcon Heavy, which will make its maiden voyage later this year, will cost a bit more.) That's already half the best price that Boeing and Lockheed Martin charge for a launch over at United Launch Alliance. It's cheaper, too, than the $77 million that Airbus' joint venture Airbus Safran Launchers will charge for its new Ariane 6 rocket.
If $60 million sounds expensive for the ground-to-orbit vehicle, consider that since the retirement of the Space Shuttle program, U.S. taxpayers are footing $50 million to send a single astronaut to the International Space Station and back on Russian rockets—subject to Vladimir Putin’s tender mercies, of course. Space travel is expensive and it will stay that way. But what makes the barge landing such a big deal is it has the potential of making it so much less expensive, compared to how we’re doing it now. Join us below and we’ll speculate on the cost break reusability might provide, and what it could mean in the long term.
What landed on the barge nicknamed Of Course I Still Love You earlier this month wasn’t the entire Falcon 9—it was only the first stage. But that first stage is an expensive stage. It consists of a network of fuel and tanks, and valves and pumps, to feed that fuel to the engines; fault tolerant electronics and avionics to run it all and keep mission control informed; and the heart of the system—nine Merlin rocket engines developed by SpaceX engineers. All this is housed in a sleek exterior casing made from lightweight aluminum lithium alloy that looks damn good on the pad, gleaming in the Florida sun.
That’s just the first stage of a two-stage rocket. As of now, the second stage is not being reused and the payload will vary depending on the customer SpaceX is dealing with. When the Falcon 9 is cleared for manned launches, which is expected in the next few years, the company has a capsule design, the Dragon series, that features automatic powered descent capabilities for soft landing on the ground with traditional parachutes only as a fail-safe back-up. In other words, depending on the mission, they get the capsule back to be reused again, too.
If re-usability sounds familiar, it should. It was one of the selling points for the Space Shuttle Transportation System. The solid rocket boosters and the sleek orbiter itself would be turned around and flown again, saving money and time. The reasons that didn’t pay off economically are complex. The short version is the space shuttle was a prototype vehicle and it had to do too many things. It never managed to become fully reusable, it was only re-refurbishable—and at considerable expense.
Traditional rockets shaped like a pencil—where every kilo of fuel is dedicated to getting as much into orbit or beyond as possible, and where the only items that come back are the ones that have to—really do seem like the cheapest way to go, for now. That’s the concept behind the Falcon 9.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk is optimistic on the cost savings available from reusing the first stage:
Of course, the endgame for SpaceX is to practice, practice, and continue practicing landing rockets on drone barges until it reaches a point where successful ocean landings become routine. That's where the economics really get interesting.
Elon Musk argues that reusability will yield "a hundred-fold cost reduction in marginal costs." That only refers to the cost of the first-stage Falcon 9 rocket. It does not mean that the total cost of a launch will drop from $60 million to $600,000.
But that leaves a lot of room for cost cutting. In the Motley Fool article, the author tends to stick with percentages. But here we can use good old-fashioned numbers and speculate that reusing the first stage dozens of times, together with other plans to shave bucks from launching Buck Rogers, could over time cut that figure in half or more. A Falcon 9 launch to orbit and Dragon ride safely back to Earth carrying six paying passengers and one pilot could end up costing as little at $20 to $30 million—which means the cost to put a single astronaut into low Earth orbit could drop from the exorbitant $50 million we are shelling out to Russia now to the high single digit millions per person.
Let’s call it $10 million per passenger just to be safe. That may still sound like a lot, and it is a lot! But $10 million means five times more people or equivalent payload per unit dollar than $50 million, and the money would be going to a U.S. company that pays a living wage with generous benefits, instead of an unpredictable foreign nuclear power run by a megalomaniac. It also opens up space travel to more than rich-as-shit space tourists.
That hypothetical $10 million means a thriving private astronaut industry. It means almost any nation on Earth could have manned and unmanned space exploration programs that could never have been afforded before. As more people go and the economies of scale kick in, the price could drop even further. Large companies and perhaps even universities might be able to swing it.
That’s important in the long run because everything we need as a civilization is in space, much of it within our own solar system, and a lot of it relatively nearby. Our solar system is swimming in renewable energy and matter of all kinds, from worlds swathed in natural gas to asteroids rife with critical elements like iron. It’s untapped, and as far as we know, we don’t have to share it with any aliens or critters or microbes, friendly or otherwise. Using those boundless resources on Earth and in Heaven is the ultimate goal of the NewSpace movement.
Landing on the barge is a big deal for all these reasons and it’s an even bigger deal for a better one: SpaceX and other NewSpace companies are our best current bet for becoming a multi-planet species by the end of this century. It’s a big step toward learning how to live and work in space, and eventually locating manufacturing off-world, as much as we can.
That’s a big deal for avoiding a global Easter Island scenario, where we smother ourselves in our own toxins, melt the poles, and turn the oceans into increasingly sterile, storm-laden death traps.