Thursday, August 24, 2017

That’s two off my SpaceX list

A lot of people love SpaceX for the dream of Mars.  I’m not big on the “future of humanity is on Mars” thing, but I love SpaceX because my dreams of lunar colonies and asteroid mining will only remain dreams if we can’t get things off Earth.  And SpaceX is a less-expensive way to get things off Earth.  However, I do have a bit of a problem with SpaceX in that they seem to bite off more than they can chew.  For a while it was like, “I don’t care about your grand plans for Mars, I’m waiting for you to do this thing that you said you would do three years ago.” To that end, about a year ago I came up with a list of the things I was waiting for SpaceX to do.  There were four items, but as of today there are now only two.

Number Four, reuse a rocket

When the Falcon 9 first stage landed at Cape Canaveral on December 22, 2015, becoming the first rocket to put a payload into orbit and then land, I like most people was overjoyed at the engineering marvel.  However, once the dust settled I was like, “Okay, when are you going to relaunch it?” Because while landing a rocket is a fantastic feat, the real test would be if you could reuse it.  I mean, a reusable rocket is one that you can launch and land several times, not one you launch, land, then throw in the scrap heap.  So when a different landed booster took off for the second time on March 30, 2017, I was thrilled.  Having a rocket you can launch, land, refuel, and relaunch in days – maybe even hours – will truly open up space for … everything.  And that was a beautiful first step towards that.

Number Three, launch twelve times in a year

This may sound like an odd goal to have, but a few years ago I read somewhere that there were sixty satellites waiting to be launched by SpaceX over the next five years.  That’s great, but in 2013 they only had three launches, and in 2014 they had six.  To launch sixty satellites in five years, you need to average one a month, but if you’re only doing one every two or three months, the math doesn’t work out.  They seemed on track to meet this goal in 2015, but then they had a launch failure on June 28, which set them back.  So in 2015 they again only had six successful launches.  In 2016 they had eight successful launches in eight months, but then a rocket blew up on the pad on September 1, setting them back again.  But today, with the successful launch of FORMOSAT-5, SpaceX has launched twelve times this year.  And they still have four months to go. 

As I said, this is a little odd to have as a goal, but for my dreams of making humanity a spacefaring civilization, we need not overly expensive, reliable, and frequent launches to get us out into space.  SpaceX has done a lot with those first two, and it’s fantastic to see them make progress with the last.

Number Two, fly the Falcon Heavy

There are those who think the only way to open up space is to have super big rockets.  I don’t fall into that group.  My thoughts have been that if you had two rockets, let’s call them A and B where B can lift three times as much as A, I’d rather split a payload into thirds and launch them on three As and have them dock in orbit.  In large part because if there’s an accident, then you only lose a third of the payload instead of all of it.  Also, bigger rockets tend to be more expensive, take longer to design and test, and don’t fly as often.  If we were going to put up some space station that would take one SLS or ten Falcon 9s, I’d go with the Falcon 9s because you could probably fit an additional ten Falcon 9s into the launch manifest in the time before the SLS finally flies.  It’s the philosophy of “Let’s do what we can now with what we have, instead of waiting ten years to maybe do something bigger.”

Having said all of that, I do like the Falcon Heavy because it seemed like a pretty simple – in rocket science terms – idea.  As such, instead of waiting decades for a new big rocket, we’d only have to wait a couple of years.  And then a couple more.  And a couple more.  Given what I know now, I might not have been that big of fan of the Falcon Heavy when I first heard of it.  But it’s finally just a few months from flying.  Hopefully.  And if it’s actually successful, it will be a wonderful addition to the rocket family.  And while people will still clamor for something bigger, I’ll be “Let’s do what we can now with what we have, instead of waiting ten years to maybe do something bigger.” As far as I’m concerned, the Falcon Heavy is big enough to start working towards new space stations and lunar bases.

Number One, fly humans

While launching communication satellites and science probes are great, the only way to colonize space is to send people.  While SpaceX doesn’t have the only commercial crew launcher in development, it does seem like it’s the furthest ahead.  It also may be the most open to stuff beyond the International Space Station.  Taking crews to the ISS is important, but I think the whole point is to open up new places to take people.  SpaceX has already announced a joyride around the moon, and with the Falcon Heavy they can launch modules for commercial laboratories and hotels and then launch crews and guests to them. 


My dream of SpaceX has nothing to do with Mars.  It’s all about regular people – after going through a medical check and some training – booking a seat on the Tuesday launch up to Gagarin Hotel, or maybe to catch a connecting flight to land at the Armstrong Hotel.  And these four things have – and will – pave the way to that dream.

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