So, you know Iron man? Also known as Tony Stark? You know how super philanthropical and awesome Robert Downey Jr. makes him out to be? Yeah, it sure would be great if Tony Stark was actually real and was changing the world for the better, huh? Well, guess what citizens of the world, he does exist.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the man that is Elon Musk. This is the man that Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark is modeled after. Yes, the great Robert Downey Jr. actually confirmed that someone other than himself is as great as Tony Stark. That’s gotta say something, right? Well don’t let Robert Downey Jr. take all the credit. I mean this guy only taught himself software programming and then sold a game at the age of 12. He did build a company called Zip2 which would only become the tiny little online trading startup you may know as eBay. He only co-founded a solar company with his cousins called SolarCity which is now the largest distributor of solar systems in the world. His work as the CEO of Tesla Motors has only brought several publications, including the Toronto Star, to call him the next Henry Ford. During his CEO-ship, he has headed the company towards building the first electric sports car, a $70,000 model S full-electric sedan, unveiled future plans for an electric SUV/minivan, and continues to work towards his ultimate goal of building the first sub-$30,000 full-electric vehicle, all while earning a salary of only $1 a year, leading to him being compared with the late Steve Jobs as well. Between SolarCity and Tesla Motors, I feel like this guy is the only rich guy that gives a damn about global warming.
Oh yeah, there’s also that little thing called SpaceX where he and his team of fellow genius’ will probably end up revolutionizing space travel as we know it.
Reaching for the Stars
What did you think when you read that last line? I’ll go ahead and tell you. “Whoopteedoo. Yet another Kickstarter campaign promising the stars (literally). Let’s see some results first, dude!” Well, they launched their own liquid-fueled rocket into orbit in 2008, they launched a spacecraft into orbit and then recovered it in 2010, first sent a spacecraft to the International Space Station in 2012, and also sent a satellite into geosynchronous orbit in 2013.
“Okay, so they shot a bunch of stuff into space, so what?” Well, in another allegory to Steve Jobs and his company, SpaceX prefers to fabricate most of their spacecraft components in-house, including the rocket engines, thrusters, and heat shields. By doing this, they can tightly control the quality of their components, and have been able to dramatically increase rocket efficiency, leading SpaceX to become the most cost efficient company in the space business. According to Musk, a standard flight using one of their Falcon 9 launch vehicles runs a fairly thrifty $54 million with a full cargo transport mission with one of their Dragon space craft running up only $133 million. According to the NSS’s calculations, a Falcon 9 Heavy launch vehicle costs an average of $100 million, which is a tremendous advantage over the projected cost of the competing Delta IV Heavy (the pricing of these rockets is not really public knowledge), which is $435 million. SpaceX has been able to get their prices so low that even the Chinese have said they cannot compete.
As a result of these impressive achievements, SpaceX captured a $1.6 billion contract from NASA in 2008 to supply the International Space Station. Four years later, SpaceX began successfully sending its Dragon cargo craft up into space to provide supplies to the International Space Station.
But if that were the end of the story, I’d be yawning and going to sleep right now. But the reason I’m staying up is because of Elon Musk’s dream of reusable spacecraft.
Enter the Dragon (2nd one)
So, I briefly talked about the dragon, but first private company to do space stuff blah blah blah, nobody cares, amiright? Okay, since 2012, SpaceX has been working on making spaceflight even cheaper. Musk’s idea is that as long as we are throwing away spacecraft when we are done with them, spaceflight will remain intensely expensive and therefore unachievable for the average Joe. Honestly, this is correct. Even with SpaceX bringing down the space launch price to under $1000 per pound, even $54 million is a lot for a single trip.
For the last couple of years, SpaceX has been playing around with this guy, called the Grasshopper. The name sorta says it all. It’s basically a re-usable rocket built to jump up into the sky and then fall back down and use heavy thrusters to keep itself upright. In the picture above, you can see one of their test flights in August of last year. It literally shoots up into the air, falls back down slowly, and lands on the ground.
Now, this is the first time I’ve ever heard of a successful test flight with a re-usable rocket. It’s pretty damn impressive to see a giant phallic thing shoot up into the air, and then fall down still rock hard and pointing up. It’s something only the man who inspired Tony Stark could do.
Now, as for the header of this paragraph, the Grasshopper laid way for the next bit of technological achievement. This is an achievement that’s been two years in the making, ever since SpaceX got that tasty tasty contract from NASA in August of 2012 to develop a space capsule that can carry crew. Why did they want SpaceX to do it? Well, because SpaceX said they could do it cheap. And with Congress ripping money away from NASA like candy from babies, NASA needs some cheap right now. Also, now that the USA doesn’t particularly like Russia right now, I think NASA and the US government would prefer to stop paying $71 million per person for Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.
This is where the Dragon V2 Spacecraft comes into play. Just announced today (at 7 p.m. PST to be exact), the Dragon V2 is promising to be the first fully re-usable crew capsule. As was demonstrated (dramatized for the moment, unfortunately) in their public reveal, this space craft would launch into space (presumably on a Falcon 9 launch vehicle), fly to the space station using a deployable solar array for power, dock with the space station, and then descend to the Earth, using their SuperDraco twin engines to blow 16,000 lbs. of thrust towards the earth and slow the craft towards landing. According to Musk, the Dragon V2 can descend from space and land on the earth with the accuracy of a helicopter. He says this is how a 21st Century spacecraft should land. And I agree.
To the left is the first real re-usable spacecraft. It shoots up into space, comes back down, lands on a pad, gets refueled, and then goes back up again. I hope you’re not missing how amazing this is. And it has been created. It is here. And it is just getting better. Once Grasshopper has been fully applied to their Falcon 9 launch vehicles, we could see the cost of a space launch going down from $54 million to $5-7 million.
But cheap and re-usable is not all the Dragon V2 has to offer. If it was, we’d just toss plastic bags into space (don’t flame me, I’m kidding). Not only will the Dragon V2 be cheaper than the Russian offering, it will also be safer. It’s twin SuperDraco thruster engines give the astronauts up to 16,000 lbs. of thrust potential to maneuver out of danger, dock with the ISS without a docking arm, and just generally control the ship in a way that’s not like getting shot at the earth from a space cannon and landing in the water. Also, the engines are built in pairs so that the other engine can take over if one of them fails. They even kept the parachute for the absolute emergency circumstances. Once the craft is a few miles from landing, the computer systems within the ship will quickly test the engines and deploy the parachute if the engines are refusing to work for some reason. All this is thrown in with an improved heat shield that should be even better at preventing those little char marks on the outside of the craft. You do want it coming back still sparkling and clean, right?
Finally, the Dragon V2 will even have more space than the Russian capsule, as it can hold seven astronauts to the Soyuz’s three.
And on top of all that, it’s pretty good looking too. I mean look at the view from the inside. Look at those beautiful leather seats, the fold-down instrument panels, the kinda sci-fi-ish looking grid pattern on the walls. It all looks like something that you’d see in a sci-fi movie. And it might as well be.
Wax On, Wax Off
Okay, I know I’m waxing it on a little thick, but you gotta admit that seeing true innovation in the space race again is exciting. I don’t really even care about SpaceX, I just care about someone actually doing something to prevent us from going back into the stone age. Think about this for a moment. The reason SpaceX wanted to build this craft is because of the lucrative contracts that NASA is offering for a successful Space Taxi vehicle/service. Why is NASA offering these contracts? Because we can’t pay the Russians anymore? Because the Russians and Chinese like each other again? Maybe. But really, it’s because American companies are available to replace these vehicles. Yes, I mean companies. SpaceX’s surge into the market has inspired Boeing and the Sierra Nevada Company to step up their game.
And that is exciting. Normally I don’t like putting my hopes in fully private companies, but when someone like Elon Musk is at the helm, you can guarantee the results will be good. So far, they’ve injected some much needed adrenaline into the stagnant space industry and I love seeing the space race getting exciting again. Most of all, I love seeing great innovation in the space race from America for the first time since the space race began. What’s the next frontier for this company? According to Elon Musk, Mars. Once we can taxi people to the station, let’s skip the moon and go right to Mars. Will we see the day when a human first steps foot on Mars? After what I’ve seen today, I think so. Will it be on a SpaceX spacecraft? Maybe, but I don’t care. Keep the innovation coming.