by Rod D. Martin
April 8, 2016
Today, Elon Musk and SpaceX achieved their extraordinary goal, landing a Falcon 9 rocket on a tiny drone ship in the Atlantic. The video is extraordinary.
But what is even more extraordinary is the effect this has on the human future in space. To quote Elon:
If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred. A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.
I discussed this in great detail in this essay several months ago, both in terms of impact going forward and what we’ve lost as a result of the failure of big government and the “space-industrial complex” to prioritize reusability over fat contracts lo these past many decades. It is truly a scandal, one which courageous entrepreneurs in a finally free(er) market has finally resolved.
Access to space — like all things — has been restricted by cost. The cost to launch a large payload on a legacy rocket like the Atlas V is as much as $140 million. SpaceX has already cut the cost of launching a similarly-sized payload to around $70 million: a very big deal to be sure.
But fully reusable spacecraft mean a future in which it’s as cheap to go to space as to fly to China, or even California. Indeed, Elon has mused about the possibility of reducing the price per launch to just $700,000 in the relatively near term. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin just landed its New Shepard rocket for the third time in Texas, Richard Branson continues to make progress toward point-to-point travel anywhere on Earth via space in two hours, and the development of scramjets that soon will do exactly that from any commercial airport continues apace.
Is the world different because of cheap, widespread air travel? How much different?
That’s what’s about to happen. Again.
Oh, it’s also more than worthy of note: that Falcon 9 lifted one of SpaceX’s Dragon capsules to the Space Station, where it delivered various supplies, but more importantly, Bigelow Aerospace’s BEAM. This inflatable module promises to radically reduce the cost of adding useable volume to the ISS. But far more than that, once the BEAM’s two year tests are completed, Bigelow intends to offer massive inflatable space stations of its own, for use or sale by anyone.
The first of these will be the B330, with a whopping 330 cubic meters of internal space. That’s about the size of Skylab or Mir, but because it’s inflatable, it can be launched by a radically smaller rocket. And it’s complete by itself — no additional modules or attachments necessary — but can be connected to as many additional B330s (or other things) as the user wants.
In short, the space Hilton is almost here. And so is a large, diverse, largely private ecosystem of orbital ports, manufacturing centers and, in time, cities. Just as was true on the American coast 400 years ago, with the development of decent ships and the desire of entrepreneurs like those in the Virginia Company to build a new world out of wilderness.
It is a new age indeed.