Yesterday Elon Musk and the SpaceX team made history while launching a space shuttle and it’s 11-satellite payload into orbit. Here’s the history-making part: Space shuttles such as this one have what’s called a “First Stage” rocket. This rocket is super badass and does all the heavy lifting, blasting the shuttle and it’s payload all the way into space. Once it gets the shuttle and payload there, it slings it horizontally into orbit. At this point, its job is done and it’s out of fuel, so it disconnects itself and falls back to earth, parachuting into the ocean. That First Stage rocket is then tracked down and more or less thrown away.
Here the problem with that — First Stage rockets are crazyyyyy expensive! It’s the biggest cost of the whole mission. Imagine if every time you fly on a plane, once you land at your destination, that plane is thrown away. Imagine if every single plane literally made one, and only one flight. After that, you need to build a new plane for the next flight. It’s a comical thought. But that exactly how space missions work. Until yesterday. The whole premise behind SpaceX is they are looking to build the first ever recoverable and reusable rockets that are capable of sending payloads into orbit. Yesterday they completed the hardest part of that. They miraculously recovered a mission successful First Stage rocket. The literally landed it upright perfectly. All that’s left now it to refill it with fuel and use it for it’s next go-round. At which point that will have changed human space travel forever.
Here are some numbers for you to explain just how much of an economic impact this has (via The Washington Times)
When the Space Shuttle began development in 1972, it was estimated that each flight would cost $22 million. By the end of 2010 NASA estimated per-flight costs of $1.6 billion. By contrast, the projected cost per mission of the Falcon 9 starts at $61.2 million.
Thats twenty six Falcon 9 launches per 1 nasa. Why should you care though? Well, a friend of mine just asked that very question. Here’s how our conversation panned out (hit the jump for the full convo):
Friend: From a purely philosophical standpoint and from an extremely long term one, i love space. from a what-does-this-do-for-me standpoint, which is where i’m coming from right now, i’m just okay on space. “realizing our potential in the universe” doesn’t excite me because i’ll very much be dead.
also, to clarify, none of my lack of enthusiasm should be taken as “why are we doing this and spending all this money doing this?” I’m all for investing in the intangible, advancing of human civilization. i’m just in a selfish mindset and want to know what i’m going to get out of it.
Feldydank: here’s how I think about space exploration: Scientists come up with these strategic moonshot ideas bc of of the potential new discoveries it could lead to. (i.e. Land on the moon/Mars or mine a comet bc we might find new shit that will boost our earth technologies exponentially etc.). There’s no definitive saying what we’ll discover, so in a sense, those missions are useless to you and I. However these missions are planned out so far in advance that they literally require technologies that don’t exist at the time the project is proposed. So in order to even embark on the mission means major funding goes into developing groundbreaking tech – right here on earth – just to make the mission possible. That tech changes our lives on a day to day basis. We can go into the details of how they each affect your life day to day later, but some of the tech brought about/pushed forward drastically bc of space mission innovation include:
3D printing, medicine, VR, computing and simulation, shoe insoles, smoke detectors, super soaker guns, workout equipment, telecommunications, gps, headphones, water filters, and yes, tempur pedic beds. The list goes on forever.
So the end result of a certain major space mission may be meaningless to you, but everything that happened over the years in the making of that mission probably changed your life in a million ways that you were never made aware of.
That being said, the potential discoveries that the space mission could lead to will very likely change the outcome of humanity. Even if only bc of how it can inspire future generations to further change the world.
Friend: I feel that a thousand percent. I have only love for R&D and for investing in moonshots and things that don’t necessarily have practical application now because of the things they might inspire or incidentally discover. I more meant what does it mean that we can now land spaceships and how will that, as it gets cheaper and easier and more common, change my life in the next half century?
It’s an unfair question and I know that. I’m just being difficult.
Feldydank: We can try way more experiments. More moon shots = more discovery. This one mission launched 11 satellites. Not sure what they’re doing, but potentially building up global free wifi. If launching this stuff keeps getting cheaper, we can have a Vacay Sattelite of our own one day
Friend: I’d love to see a graph of how many launches we have a year and the cost next to a graph of expected launched and cost
Is it unreasonable to say space experiments and research (and discoveries and applications of those discoveries) could grow exponentially?
Or is that exactly the point?
Feldydank: That is the least unreasonable. It’s exactly the point.
Friend: Well that’s super exciting!
Feldydank: “When the Space Shuttle began development in 1972, it was estimated that each flight would cost $22 million. By the end of 2010 NASA estimated per-flight costs of $1.6 billion. By contrast, the projected cost per mission of the Falcon 9 starts at $61.2 million.” thats 26 Falcon 9 launches per 1 nasa.
Friend: So it’s as if every time a scientist wanted to do an experiment, they had to spend tens of millions of dollars and the destroy the thing that cost tens of millions of dollars to get the result of their experiment with no guarantee of success. And then when they got their results, they’d have to do it again?
Friend: That’s hilariously inefficient.
This is great. We should go into astrophysics. So easy.
Feldydank: Imagine if every time you flew in a plane, we threw the plane out. Literally every flight you take is the first and only flight that plane will ever make.
It’s comical to even consider that. This is Elons whole premise with SpaceX
Friend: So our kids are gonna be like, “wait, astronauts used to go to space and then launch small pods from the ship, which would be lost forever, and crash land into the sea with a parachute?!”
I love being the bridge generation.
So yea, this is pretty awesome stuff. If you weren’t already excited about it, hopefully this helped to shed some light and got at least one more person interested and pumped up. Watching that go down yesterday was fucking intense. Humans are the best.