South Africa, World, Sci-Tech

SpaceX: The future of space travel is up to a boykie from Pretoria

By Richard Poplak 19 April 2012

As Nasa continues to mothball its moribund space shuttles, ferrying them hither and thon to sundry museums, they are also putting 60 years of space exploration to sleep. SpaceX hopes to be the first private company to monetise space transport. On 30 April, we’ll find out if that’s possible. By RICHARD POPLAK.

Full disclosure: this publication has, on two occasions, rung the death knell for space exploration. That’s because we were sad, petulantly so, about the end of the space shuttle programme. We loved them. And we were hoping for something big and rocket-y in its place; pronouncements of a mission to Mars, or a moon landing, or some damn thing.

But in a downward spiralling economy and in an era bereft of daring leadership – or any leadership at all – such pronouncements were not forthcoming. The closest that Barack Obama is planning to get to space is a couple of trips to Starbucks. So it comes as something of a relief that a company called SpaceX is jumping into the fray. They’re not taking us to Mars any time soon, but think of them as the universe’s most innovative trucking company.

In 2010, California-based Space Exploration Technologies became the first private company to successfully orbit and recover a space vehicle. It also became the first Western private company to baffle the Chinese with regard to how low their costs are. At the recent National Space Symposium, as quoted in Aviation Week, “Chinese officials say they find the published prices on the SpaceX website very low for the services offered, and concede they could not match them with the Long March series of launch vehicles even if it were possible for them to launch satellites with US components in them.”

SpaceX was quick to reply, and in ever-so-slightly jingoistic terms: “SpaceX currently has the best launch prices in the world and they don’t believe they can be beaten. This is a clear case of American innovation trumping lower overseas labour rates,” writes Elon Musk, SpaceX’s CEO, formerly PayPal’s main brain, and born, of course, in Pretoria.

“For the first time in more than three decades, America last year began taking back international market-share in commercial satellite launch. This remarkable turn-around was sparked by a small investment Nasa made in SpaceX in 2006 as part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. A unique public-private partnership, COTS has proven that under the right conditions, a properly incentivized contractor – even an all-American one – can develop extremely complex systems on rapid timelines and a fixed-price basis, significantly beating historical industry-standard costs.

“China has the fastest growing economy in the world. But the American free enterprise system, which allows anyone with a better mouse-trap to compete, is what will ensure that the United States remains the world’s greatest superpower of innovation.”

Ouch. On paper, SpaceX’s achievements look stratospherically remarkable. When they successfully launched their Falcon-9 rocket and Dragon capsule, recovering the latter – a first for a private company – they did something unprecedented. With all the resources an authoritarian nightmare state can muster, the North Koreans can’t put a satellite in orbit, a much easier gambit. As a private company, having spent $800 million in development costs to date, SpaceX have had one flawless capsule launch, and are prepared for another on April 30.

What’s more, SpaceX have guaranteed contracts from Nasa, amounting to about $1,6-billion. In other words, they’re already profitable and are hitting all their delivery targets. Should everything go according to plan on the 30th, it looks like SpaceX and Nasa may prove that private/public is the way to go. Within the year, the Dragon capsules will be docking at the International Space Station, ferrying cargo back and forth, at about a third of the cost of the Russian Soyuz, a ride that Nasa is currently, and expensively, hitching. The Falcon 9/Dragon system can be upgraded to hold seven cosmonauts, double the Soyuz’s capacity. Oh, and the Bose surround sound Blu-Ray system is, apparently, dope.

That said, for those of us who have seen the Alien franchise, we know what a profit-bound, corporate model can mean for space exploration. It means slimy things nesting in chest cavities, leaping forth with the intent of severely impacting humanity’s lifestyle. For those of us who don’t want the Apple logo embossed on the moon, Nasa (and government-run space programmes) seems like the best bet. Then again, planting the Old Glory in the Sea of Tranquility is just another form of branding, no less malevolent.

Musk’s zeal – his stated reasoning for SpaceX’s attempt to reduce the cost of space travel by a factor of 100 – can sound a little missionary, as befits someone from Pretoria. “An asteroid or a super volcano could destroy us, and we face risks the dinosaurs never saw: An engineered virus, inadvertent creation of a micro black hole, catastrophic global warming or some as-yet-unknown technology could spell the end of us. Humankind evolved over millions of years, but in the last 60 years atomic weaponry created the potential to extinguish ourselves. Sooner or later, we must expand life beyond this green and blue ball – or go extinct.”

So, if there’s a less bad way to get to space, SpaceX looks like the answer. As they get better at what they do, their costs will drop, a fact that Musk points out in order to make the Chinese feel even worse. (Does Nasa pay for contracts on PayPal? Just asking.) From zero to heroes in a mere 10 years, they are about to send the Falcon 9/Dragon combo to the space station, to test its docking capabilities. If all works out, then the future of space exploration is public/private.

All I’m saying is, let’s make sure we have Sigourney Weaver on speed dial, just in case. DM



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Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama and Head of SpaceX Elon Musk tour Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral in Florida. REUTERS/Jim Young.

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