Turning a Page

On the evening of December 21, 2015 my wife and I went to see the new Star Wars movie, where the Millennium Falcon flew once again.  But something of much greater importance also happened on that day, less than an hour before our movie started. Something that also involved a Falcon.

Just a few minutes before 6:00 PM Pacific Time on that same day, SpaceX successfully launched 11 satellites into orbit for Orbcomm.  They used their Falcon 9 rocket to do it, a rocket named after Han Solo’s ship from Star Wars.  But SpaceX also did something that had never been done before: they safely landed their first stage booster back at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, setting it back down near its launch pad on a pillar of fire like something from a 1950s science fiction movie. 

And with that remarkable success, the world changed—and more than just a little. It is transformative, perhaps even revolutionary.  In fact, it is hard to overstate the significance of the event, even though the big story in the news that evening was how the wrong woman was crowned Miss Universe.

The Space Frontier Foundation, a space advocacy group, pointed out in a press release issued moments after the landing that “The cost of launching American astronauts to the ISS is $70 million per person. With SpaceX’s success, the cost could be reduced to below $7 million and has potential to drop to under $700,000.” 

Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 for the express purpose of colonizing Mars.  In order to reach that ultimate goal, he knew that the cost of reaching space had to drop significantly.  The Space Shuttle, for instance, was very expensive.  Using that system to get something into orbit cost about 10,000 dollars per pound.  The Falcon 9, even as an expendable system, had already reduced that per pound cost to under 3000 dollars. Now, it appears that the cost will be dropping precipitously thanks to the Falcon 9 suddenly becoming reusable.

The first stage booster costs SpaceX about sixteen million dollars to build, comparable to the cost of an aircraft.  Until December 21, rockets flew only once and were thrown away.  Imagine how expensive it would be to fly if after every flight your 747 was junked.  Hardly anyone would ever fly if that were the case—and that is why spaceflight has been so rare.

But now that will change.  The change will be hard on the Russians, the Chinese, and the Europeans.  The Soyuz and Proton rockets used by the Russians do not have the capability of landing after launch.  Neither does the Chinese Long March rocket.  The Arianne V used by the European Space Agency cannot be reused, nor can their Vega, nor can their proposed Arianne VI that they are planning to build.  Likewise, the rockets that India and Japan have developed to launch satellites are not reusable.  And the Delta IV and Atlas V launched by Boeing and Lockheed—well, they can’t be reused either. 

The landing of the Falcon 9 first stage booster is a disruptive event for the space industry. The rest of the world will have to play catch up or they will go out of business. Expendable rockets will never be able to compete with reusable rockets that can fly at a tiny fraction of the cost of the old fashioned rockets.

Additionally, the advent of reusable rockets will open up new industries and lead to a boom in our economy.  Planetary Resources is a recently founded company barely two years old that intends to start mining the asteroids of the solar system.  It is well-funded by the likes of Google’s founders and other deep pocketed individuals.

Why would the owners of Google and other billionaires invest hundreds of millions of dollars into an asteroid mining company?  A single small asteroid just a few miles in diameter has more platinum in it than all the platinum that has been mined on Earth in its entire history (and all the platinum on Earth originated from asteroids in the first place).  Asteroids also contain a wealth of other valuable ingredients: rare earth minerals, gold, silver, copper and even water.  At current prices a single asteroid contains trillions of dollars in resources.  Reusable rockets like the Falcon 9 now make such riches more easily accessible and much more cost effective to extract.  And one other bit of bright news from that: mining done off world in space is environmentally benign: all the pollution and other problems associated with mining are non-existent. 

As cheap access to space becomes available thanks to reusable rockets, new businesses and industries will arise.  New jobs will be created.  Cheap access to space will have a positive impact on our economy, perhaps akin to the changes that have occurred thanks to the internet, cellphones and computers.