by Rod D. Martin
December 23, 2015
On the heels of Jeff Bezo’s impressive landing of a New Shepherd rocket last month, Elon Musk’s achievement this week is a genuine revolution at hand, like that of advancing from canoes to the Age of Sail.
There is really only one thing holding humanity back from expanding across space: Earth’s gravity well. It is terribly expensive to lift anything all the way from Earth’s surface up into the beyond. Once there, space travel is like a game of pool: send something in a particular direction and it will keep going until something stops it. But first, you have to get there.
Still, it might be easy to miss the significance of the past month’s achievements. What’s the big deal, after all, about landing a rocket? We see airplanes land all the time, after all.
But that’s exactly the point. Airplanes are routine: you don’t have to build a new one every time you fly. If you did, on average (based on list price for a new 737), that would increase each airline ticket by roughly $493,650.79. Each way.
Elon says that it costs about $200,000 to fuel up a Falcon 9, which can carry a little over half the payload of the much larger Space Shuttle. But a launch costs about $70 million. The difference? A good bit of it is in the engines and first stage you have to throw away each and every flight.
Eliminate that problem, and the cost of a launch could drop as low as $1 million, maybe less. Elon has suggested $700,000. If he’s right, that’s a two-orders-of-magnitude reduction in cost, almost overnight.
SpaceX has already achieved unprecedented cost reductions in its short life. A Space Shuttle launch — even with a partially reusable vehicle — cost $450 million and only lifted less than twice the payload. SpaceX’s chief competitors, giant defense contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin (no relation), offer their Atlas V (comparable to the Falcon 9) for $170 million per launch, with no reusability on the horizon.
One wonders how two upstart companies managed, in a handful of years, to out-innovate companies that have built America’s rockets since before the Space Age on something so important for so long. Surely they weren’t coasting on their giant government contracts all these decades, while generations passed, robbed of their space-faring futures? The penny-wise, pound-foolishness reminds one of a Phillip K. Dick classic.
Regardless, the future is here. Reduce the cost of anything by two orders of magnitude and you’re going to get a lot more of it. The cost per pound to orbit at $170 million is $6,143; at $70 million it’s $2,500. At $700,000 it’s just $25. The number of things — and people — going to space is about to increase on an incredible scale. And with that will come revolutions in exploration, energy, mining, manufacturing…and settlement.
Oh, and as to the (obviously healthy) competition between these billionaires? Here’s how it stacks up so far.