At the end of 2015, several of the most august science journals in the world looked over America’s space accomplishments for the year and concluded that there were none. Space, said the journals, was in a holding pattern. It is important not to make that same mistake about 2016.
The big news of 2016 was that 49 years after the USA landed men on the Moon, America finally has an achievable Mars program. But it doesn’t come from NASA. It comes from private industry. It comes from Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
In June of 2016 Musk announced that a version of SpaceX’s Dragon 2 passenger-carrying spacecraft (named the Red Dragon) would be launched atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in 2018 and would land on Mars. The Red Dragon is a capsule capable of carrying 2,200 pounds of cargo to the fourth planet from the Sun. Musk added that SpaceX would send a mission to Mars every 26 months starting in 2018. The goal: to learn how to land large payloads on Mars and to conduct experiments needed before humans can land on Mars. In other words, Elon Musk has a Mars Program. And it begins in 2018.
Then, on September 27, 2016, in Guadalajara, Mexico, Musk revealed the really big news—the details of SpaceX’s upcoming Interplanetary Transport System, formerly known as the BFR (for Big F****ng Rocket). This fully reusable launch vehicle is designed to take between 100 and 200 passengers to Mars…or beyond. The ITS will be the biggest rocket ever flown. It will be 12 meters in diameter, or 39.37 feet. The first stage will be powered by, brace yourself, 42 Raptor engines. The Interplanetary Transport System will have a payload capability of from 300 to 550 metric tons (661,387 pounds-1,213,000 pounds) to low earth orbit. This is roughly four times the throwing capacity of the biggest American rocket ever flown, the 140-metric-tons-of-cargo Saturn V rocket that took humans to the moon. SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System spaceship, when refueled in earth orbit, will be able to transport 450 metric tons of cargo and passengers to Mars. Musk’s goal? Cities on Mars. Yes, entire cities. And a million people or more.
But that was just one of the great leaps in space that America took in 2016. NASA’s science missions like the Juno Mission that entered Jupiter’s orbit on July 4, 2016, were brilliant. But there was something more norm-snapping—a revolution. That revolution, like Elon Musk’s Mars program, is coming from a territory the science journals overlooked in 2015: from commercial companies. Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are in hot pursuit of suborbital space tourism. Blue Origin conducted five successful flights of its New Shepard suborbital launch vehicle and capsule in a row, the first in 2015 and four in 2016. Most important, the same launch vehicle was flown on all five flights.
Why is this a big deal? Up until now, rockets have been used once, then thrown away. The result has been a ridiculously high cost of access to space. Using throwaway rockets, it costs roughly $143 million dollars to put one human and all the supplies she needs into space. But if you reuse your rockets, the cost of access to space will plummet dramatically. And reuse is exactly what Bezos demonstrated. So Bezos’ use of the same vehicle five times made history. It demonstrated that Space’s Reusability Revolution has arrived.
But there’s more. The third flight of the New Shepard in 2016 tested descent of its passenger capsule with only two instead of the usual three parachutes. So the vehicle can land safely even if one of its parachutes fails! And on the fourth flight, Bezos demonstrated the New Shepard’s In-flight abort capability—the ability to speed the passenger capsule away from the rocket in case the rocket explodes.
Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic completed assembly of its VSS Unity—the Virgin SpaceShip Unity—Virgin’s second SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. The first SpaceShipTwo, the VSS Enterprise, crashed on October 31 of 2014 killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injuring pilot Peter Siebold. After completing assembly, the VSS Unity conducted its first two glide flights in 2016. Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic seem poised to begin passenger service to suborbital space in 2018.
Meanwhile, we are witnessing the miniaturization of space hardware. A miniaturization that, like rocket reusability, is lowering the cost of building and launching satellites dramatically. Several startup companies are developing new small launch vehicles to meet the growing demand from the CubeSat, Nanosat, and Picosat market. Orbital test flights are scheduled to begin in 2017 for Rocket Labs’ Electron launch vehicle and for Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne, a rocket that will be carried aloft and will launch from the underside of a modified Boeing 747-400. The Electron has one fiftieth the liftoff mass of a SpaceX Falcon 9. In addition, Rocket Labs is planning flights to the Moon for its Electron launch vehicle. And the husband-and-wife-owned Interorbital Systems is also planning Moon flights for its Neptune launch vehicle. Both Rocket Labs and Interorbital Systems are competing in a totally private Moon program: the race for the Google Lunar XPRIZE. Four teams have secured launch contracts in the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition, namely SpaceIL (Israel – utilizing SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket), Moon Express (U.S. – utilizing the Electron rocket), Synergy Moon (international – utilizing Interorbital’s Neptune rocket) and Team Indus (India – utilizing India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle rocket).
Then there are the space breakthroughs that grabbed headlines in 2016. SpaceX had eight successful flights of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle in 2016 before a falcon 9 exploded during a static test in August. Most important was SpaceX’s work advancing the Reusability Revolution. SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rockets to space then pinpoint landed them on an earthly landing pad or on SpaceX’s autonomous barge at sea. SpaceX made its first successful launch and landing in December of 2015. Since then the first stage of the Falcon 9 has landed intact on six out of nine attempts, including five of the last six attempts. Falcon 9 launches are expected to resume in January of 2017, and the first attempt to reuse a first stage is scheduled for the first quarter of 2017. In other words, for the first time SpaceX will do more than just safely land a rocket returning from space. It will refuel and refurbish that rocket, much as a passenger plane is refueled and serviced when it lands. Then SpaceX will send that same rocket back to space again.
How does what SpaceX is doing differ from what Blue Origin is accomplishing? Blue Origin’s rocket only reaches the lower fringes of space, 63.2 miles high. SpaceX rockets go all the way to Low Earth Orbit, between 100 and 250 miles above the earth’s surface.
The successful landings of the Falcon 9 and the New Shepard promise to reduce launch costs to one tenth what they’ve been and eventually to drive down costs to one hundredth of traditional rates. In other words, instead of spending over $140 million to send an astronaut to space with all the food, water, oxygen, and equipment to sustain her, the reusability revolution will soon make it possible to put you or me in space for a mere $707,000. Not a price that you and I can afford, but a price a fair number of the one percent may be willing to pony up.
But SpaceX has even more up its sleeve. The first half of 2017 will see the launch of a SpaceX rocket with twice the carrying capacity of any other rocket currently operating on earth: the Falcon Heavy. What’s more, SpaceX is not alone in plans to develop new super heavy lift launch vehicles, where super heavy lift is defined as the ability to launch 50 metric tons, 110,231 pounds or more to low earth orbit. On September 12, 2016, Jeff Bezos announced plans for Blue Origin’s New Glenn launch vehicle, whose launch debut is scheduled for 2019. This launch vehicle is 7 meters in diameter, 23 feet, and its first stage will be powered by seven Blue Origin BE-4 engines. The New Glenn will have a payload capability about the same as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy or higher. Jeff Bezos also mentioned plans for a future New Armstrong launch vehicle that will be larger than the New Glenn. The New Armstrong will be destined for interplanetary travel, but Bezos gave no further details.
Thanks to the achievements of 2016, the commercial space industry is now developing a total of four new launch vehicles in the super heavy lift category, with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, and Blue Origin’s New Armstrong. These four rockets, which will be partially or fully reusable, will cost a tenth to a thirtieth of their potential government-built competitor, NASA’s Space Launch System, which will not be reusable and which is designed to produce jobs, not just to get humans to space. If we pull the plug on the SLS and use the new commercial launch vehicles, we will get humans to the moon, the asteroids and to Mars faster and at lower cost. Dramatically lower cost.
And unlike NASA’s upcoming rocket, the Space Launch System, both Bezos’ New Armstrong and Elon Musk’s Interplanetary Transport System can land their passengers and cargo on the Martian surface. Once refueled with propellant made from Mars’ water or its atmosphere, both the SpaceX and the Blue Origin rockets can take their passengers back to earth again. One more thing that NASA’s SLS cannot do.
Topping it all off, America has not had access to space for our citizens via American rockets since 2011. The program that will get us back to space on our own launch vehicles depends on, guess who? Private industry. It’s NASA’s Commercial Crew program. That program made progress in 2016 toward its first goal: developing the capability to transport crew to and from the International Space Station (ISS). The Space Taxis that will do the job come from Boeing and from SpaceX. Both companies are building human-capable space transport capsules: Boeing’s seven-passenger CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s seven-passenger Dragon 2 capsule. SpaceX has an edge over Boeing. The first version of its Dragon capsule—the cargo-only version—has already proven its hauling capacities. And its space worthiness. Dragon capsules have flown to the International Space Station, delivered supplies and new experiments, then loaded up with completed experiments and other cargo from the ISS and brought their loads safely back to earth nine times. No other existing American cargo capsule has shown the ability to go up, then to safely come back down again. In the meantime, Boeing and SpaceX also made substantial modifications to the launch complexes where their flights will take place. Following the initial demo flights, flights of crew—flights of real, live human beings—are expected to begin in 2018 for both companies.
It is instructive to compare the progress of the Commercial Crew program, developed under a public-private partnership using fixed price contracts, with that of the Orion program—NASA’s capsule designed to carry humans into deep space and beyond. The Orion capsule is purely a government program funded with the sort of contracts that make military toilet seats so expensive—cost-plus contracts. SpaceX, Boeing, and NASA use similar capsule designs. However, the Boeing CST-100 Starliner capsule would need some modifications for beyond earth orbit missions, whereas the Dragon 2 and Orion capsules have been designed with beyond earth orbit capability from the git-go.
The Commercial Crew program started in 2009 soon after Barack Obama became president. However, the Orion program started five years earlier in 2004 when it was part of the Constellation program of the Bush administration. The commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX are on track for operational flights of humans to and from the ISS in 2018. The first human launch aboard Orion, however, won’t come till 2021 at the earliest. Yet the cost to the taxpayer has been a lot less for the Commercial Crew program than for the Orion program. The two commercial crew capsules combined cost less than the price of one Orion capsule. A lot less. And the SpaceX and Boeing capsules have a shorter development time! America could save a rocket-load of money by cancelling the Orion program and utilizing commercial crew capsules instead.
What’s more, much would be gained by cancelling the SLS and Orion programs and utilizing the commercial space industry and public-private partnerships for beyond earth orbit launch vehicles and spacecraft. There is some hope that the Trump administration may implement this needed change. Recently Charles Miller, a former NASA official and powerful advocate of commercial space, was added to the NASA transition team. Per news reports, two other commercial space advocates, Alan Stern and Alan Lindenmoyer, may be added to the transition team.
Super heavy lift launch vehicles from commercial companies mean that even our new Moon programs will open to us not thanks to government agencies like NASA and the Department of Defense, but thanks to America’s vigorous private space industry. More specifically, our path to the Moon and Mars is opening thanks to visionary billionaires: SpaceX founder Elon Musk and amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.