The Significance of Space X

Space X
Image: Space X

The pursuit of space travel has transcended borders and given us pride not only as a nation, but also as a species. It has also taken sacrifice, both in the form of billions of dollars and, more poignantly, taking the lives of our bravest explorers. Thus, the two hurdles that affect our inherent ambition to become a space faring species are laid out before us: money and safety. With their recent successful launch of a reused Dragon capsule aboard the Falcon 9 rocket, it is time to take a look at the significance of the work Space X is doing to remedy the former, and to hope that with their impending manned missions to Mars they can maintain the latter.

Who is Space X?

In order to truly appreciate what Space X has accomplished you first have to understand a little about the company’s origins and mission. Founded in 2002 by none other than eccentric billionaire genius Tony Stark (in actuality it was Elon Musk, but the similarities between the two are uncanny), the company had a simple goal; reduce the cost of spaceflight and enable the human species to colonize other planets. Okay so maybe “simple” is the wrong word. The goal is concise, but incredibly difficult to actually achieve.

While Space X’s goal may seem unrealistic, when looking at what they have been able to accomplish thus far it seems wholly possible. In 2012, just a decade after the company began, their Dragon capsule became the first private spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station. Less than a year later, the company successfully launched their Falcon 9 rocket. The rest is history. By that I mean that the company has literally made history time and time again using their Falcon 9 rocket. From landing the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket post-launch to reusing the Dragon capsule for a second resupply of the International Space Station. If the innovation of Space X is impressive, the breakneck pace at which they are doing it is astounding.

The Expense of Exploring the Expanse

Space travel has always been an expensive process, and I don’t mean $7 avocado toast expensive. I am talking $1.5 billion dollars per launch expensive, which was the cost per flight for NASA’s space shuttle missions. Even just launching satellites has been averaging around $20 million dollars per ton. In the 1960’s, with the Cold War and Space Race looming over us, cost was not an issue. This “by any means necessary” approach to space travel got us to the moon and resulted in an unparalleled boom in technological advances.

However, with the resolution of the Cold War came complacency towards space travel. The cost seen as no longer justifiable resulted in huge budget cuts to NASA in the 1980’s, all the way through to today. Despite lacking in funds, NASA has still been able to achieve incredible feats over the last few decades, resulting in unprecedented knowledge about our solar system and beyond. The results of decreased NASA funding though have also had noticeable effects, from the retirement of the space shuttle program in 2011 to having to outsource our astronauts’ flights to the International Space Station (that we paid for by the way) to Russia.

Therefore, in order to push the space industry forward it first and foremost must cut cost and what better way to drop cost than with good old-fashioned American capitalism. Near the end of the 20th century Congress began pressuring NASA to seek out commercial options for their missions in order to reduce the organizations spending. Thus, the privatized space industry began taking shape, with a handful of companies rising to the top: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, and a small start-up style company named Space X. In 2008, NASA awarded the first 20 International Space Station resupply missions to the commercial companies; twelve to Space X for a total of $1.6 billion dollars and the remaining eight to Orbital Sciences for $1.9 billion dollars. Space X was able to agree to 4 more missions than Orbital Sciences, for $300 million dollars less. Clearly there was a winner in the race to cut costs, but how was Space X able to achieve this?

The Significance of Space X

Space X is redefining how we get to space, making it more economical and consistent than ever. By figuring out how to land and subsequently reuse the first stage of their Falcon 9 rockets, they are not only able to shave millions of dollars off the cost of sending satellites into space, they are shortening the timeframe between launches by weeks. While reusing rocket stages for multiple launches has been common in the industry since the late 20th century, landing the first stage upright on a landing pad had never been done before. It is this discrepancy that allows the Falcon 9 to have the potential to become the most cost effective rocket in the history of spaceflight.

Furthermore, the Dragon capsule that Space X uses to resupply the ISS is also reusable. Once again, this is not a novelty in and of itself. The space shuttle program NASA began in the 1980’s was capable of returning to Earth for reuse. However, the now retired space shuttle program proved to be both expensive to maintain and unsafe due to aging technology. The Dragon capsule became the first commercial spacecraft to deliver and return cargo from the ISS, as well as the first commercial spacecraft to be reused for a subsequent delivery. The design of the Dragon capsule allows it to be reused quicker and cheaper than any other capsule in history. By overhauling the efficacy of both rockets and capsules, Space X has made it possible for satellite delivery and ISS resupplies to occur more frequently and less expensively than ever before. In our free market economy being better, faster, and cheaper means many more missions and continued success for Space X, NASA, and American spaceflight.

Looking Forward to the Future, and Up at the Stars

This is the most exciting time for space exploration since the Apollo missions of the 1960’s, and in large part we have Space X to thank for that. They have redesigned the rocket and reignited the passion for the American space program. The gravity of what Space X is accomplishing should not be understated. Since their first Falcon 9 test flight in June of 2010, they have successfully completed over 30 missions, with dozens more slated over the next few years. Among these future missions are manned flights for NASA astronauts, which would mark the first time an American spacecraft has carried U.S. astronauts into space since 2011.

Of all the missions Space X has on its manifest, there is one that should excite us most. In September 2016 Space X announced that it would be launching a modified unmanned Dragon capsule in an attempt to land on Mars as early as 2018. A company that has time and time again achieved milestones that most people doubted were possible, that has redefined the spaceflight industry, that is led by arguably one of the most innovative minds in human history, has an open mission statement and proposed timeframe to colonize Mars.

There are still innumerable obstacles standing in the way. As public interest in space exploration waxes and wanes so to does funding. Furthermore, the inherent risks associated with so great a mission are undeniable. With our greatest extraterrestrial triumphs has also come unforgettable tragedy. Yet, we continue to look up at night to see the stars and planets beyond our reach. With Space X and the insatiable human spirit, one day, perhaps not so far off, we will look up at the night sky knowing that on that distant red dot we call Mars, one of our own is looking back toward us.




Author: Skylar Knight

Skylar is currently in the MSc Science Communication program at Imperial College London. He has years of experience working in science museums, academic publishing, writing, filmmaking, and science education.