There’s no greater romance than space, but so far it has been mainly about government-supported missions and national pride. That marks out Elon Musk’s SpaceX venture though other private projects such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin run by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos are also in the game. From the beginning, SpaceX has been privately funded for commercial purposes, although the starting point was the “Mars Oasis” project, a mystical attempt to colonise the red planet. It’s operated quietly for more than a decade, with resupply missions to the International Space Station and satellite launches, including beyond earth orbit, using proven liquid propellant technology. On December 21, the company startled the entire world when it launched a Falcon 9 rocket (named for Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon) to send up a series of 11 satellites. After an uneventful separation, the first stage fired its rockets again and headed back to earth where it landed intact. Not only is SpaceX the first ever to do that, it realises a central part of Musk’s objectives, to build a rocket that could be reused multiple times, like a commercial airliner.
This is a massive achievement because SpaceX has shown how to reduce the cost of space travel dramatically, breathing new life into the dream of terra forming elsewhere in the solar system. Mass deep space travel is now a more realistic possibility. Both the Falcon propulsion system and the Dragon spacecraft that rides on it have been designed from concept to craft by SpaceX, a new testament to the ingenuity of American private enterprise. The company has Nasa contracts but its objectives are private. The purpose behind its creation makes it different from the relatively frivolous Virgin project.
In literally one stage SpaceX has out-jumped its rivals and thrown down the gauntlet to giants such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin who must be shaking in their boots. Musk notes that a new Falcon 9 costs about $60 million, against the $400 million price tag of Boeing and Lockheed. This signals a new race for the stars because the economics of travel have changed completely. With Blue Origin also firmly in the frame it is, more than ever, possible to boldly go where no man has gone before.