During the golden age of science fiction in the 1940s and 50s—the heyday of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke—the writers of speculative fiction imagined humanity spreading from Earth to the moon and beyond. They described entrepreneurs and scientists reaching space to find their fortunes and adventure. Such authors imagined that the final frontier would be opened in the same way that the western frontier had been in America.
But in 1969 when Americans finally made it to the moon, it wasn’t thanks to entrepreneurs or scientists fiddling in their garages. Instead, the moon landing was the result of a massive government program costing billions of dollars. Even science fiction authors hadn’t imagined space would cost so much—or that only the government would do it. Science fiction became science fact, but not quite in the way that it was imagined.
Finally, in the early twenty-first century, that is starting to change thanks to several entrepreneurs who grew up reading science fiction and have gotten tired of waiting for the government to fulfill their dreams.
Take SpaceX, a California-based company founded by Elon Musk. His stated goal is to build rockets that will let humanity colonize Mars. When SpaceX began in 2002, not many people took him seriously. After multiple successful flights of the company’s Falcon 9, along with multiple cargo trips to and from the International Space Station, no one is laughing any more.
And now SpaceX is trying to do something that has never been done before: landing the first stage of their rockets safely back on the ground and reusing it, over and over again.
Until now, the first stages of rockets have always just fallen away and been destroyed on impact. For instance the first stage of the mighty Saturn V that took Americans to the moon plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean, where it had lain ever since--until recently when Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com funded an expedition that recovered a couple of the engines from that booster for display in a museum.
Unlike the Space Shuttle which required thousands of workers to refurbish it after each flight, with the Falcon 9 SpaceX is creating a launch vehicle that is fully reusable in the same way that an airliner is reusable. Jet aircraft are not disassembled and rebuilt after each flight. Their engines are not removed and reconditioned after each trip across the country. A jet is simply refueled, given a new pilot and crew, and off it goes again. Likewise, the Falcon 9 first stage will fly back to its launch site, land, be refueled, and be ready for re-flight right away.
The cost of the fuel needed to launch a Dragon to orbit is around 250 thousand dollars. It costs less than 50 million dollars to build each Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule—compared to a new Boeing 787 which will set you back about 212 million dollars. Obviously, if all the bits of a Falcon 9 can be reused over and over, the cost of launching something to orbit will drop immensely and perhaps would approach the cost of a cross-country airplane trip.
Even without reusability, a Falcon 9 launch costs about half that of any of its competitors. Each Dragon capsule is already reusable: currently they float back on parachutes, though soon they will land propulsively, like the rockets you see in the old 1950s movies.
SpaceX has attempted a soft landing of the first stage twice; they've come close, but no cigar yet. Their next launch and attempt at recovery will come in November. Eventually I think they will be successful.All of this is part of SpaceX's goal to both lower the cost of getting to space, and ultimately, to colonize Mars. Seriously. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX has the colonization of Mars as his goal--and that was the main reason he created SpaceX. He wants to make humanity a multi-planet species.
The vision of the early science fiction authors of entrepreneurs leading humanity into space like the pioneers of old seems not to have been wrong after all—merely delayed.