Given the current tumultuous political season and discussions about bathrooms, you may have missed a small event that took place in the middle of the ocean (well, 150 miles off the coast of Florida). After a successful launch of their Falcon 9 rocket delivering cargo to the ISS, SpaceX successfully landed the booster portion of said rocket on an autonomous barge floating in the ocean. Although not one for the history books for most people, this event just completely revolutionized the space industry.
So what’s the big deal? Three things:
1. SpaceX will save taxpayers billions of dollars
2. America’s back in the space game
3. Space is going to be interesting again
1. Billions in savings
Imagine you book a flight to New York (or anywhere – it doesn’t matter). You get on the plane, take off, and land safely at your destination. But rather than refueling the plane and preparing for the next leg of the flight, workers put the jet on a barge and dump it in the middle of the ocean. Now imagine that this happens after every single commercial flight. It sounds ludicrous (because it is), but that’s essentially exactly how we approach industrial rocketry. We put supplies on top of a rocket, blast it into space, then let everything that’s not the payload drift back to Earth and crash into the ocean, never to be used again.
Although not regularly publicized, sending rockets into space is a fairly regular occurrence. Those rockets carry a plethora of various payloads: satellites, ISS supplies, telescopes, probes, rovers. Satellites alone make up the majority of what’s sent into space, used for GPS, TV, phones, surveillance, and a myriad of other purposes. Rockets put a lot of stuff into space. And each launch costs the taxpayers millions of dollars, if managed through NASA and on top of an American rocket. SpaceX’s achievement now means that we can launch, retrieve, and reuse expensive equipment that would have previously been discarded. SpaceX proved that the concept of retrievable and reusable rocketry works. Now, if NASA and SpaceX can consistently retrieve and reuse boosters, it’s a potential savings of billions of taxpayer dollars year over year.
2. America’s got its space mojo back
Since the scrap of the shuttle program in 2011, America has slowly been losing its competitive edge in the global space market. NASA itself has even been on the funding chopping block for the last couple of decades, but they’ve done an outstanding job of staying relevant in political circles. For the past decade, congress has been regularly defunding the agency, forcing it to hitch rides (literally) on other country’s space programs. America rarely does anything newsworthy when it comes to space exploration, and anything that has made the news was set in motion years ago:
- New Horizons
- Voyager 1 & 2
- Hubble, James Webb, Chandra X-ray Observatory, Spitzer, etc. (space telescopes)
- Spirit and Opportunity (Mars rovers)
- Philae (comet lander)
- International Space Station (ISS)
NASA’s lack of funding is a result of short-sighted political visions, and if it was up to the agency we’d be on our way to Mars right now.
Landing a booster on a barge may not seem like a big deal now, but this event just set in motion an entire series of future accomplishments, innovation, and planning. It’s the first rung in America’s new space ladder. This autonomous landing was proof of concept, and now that it’s been proven to work, we’re about to witness a major revolution in astronautic design, engineering, and execution. Further, one of the most important commercial pioneers in the industry (SpaceX / Elon Musk) is working almost exclusively with NASA. SpaceX is revolutionizing astronautics, and they’re bringing that knowledge to NASA. America’s back in the game.
3. Space will be interesting again
If you were alive in 1969, then you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when Neil Armstrong climbed out of the lunar lander and stepped onto the dusty surface of the moon. The human species had just put a man on a cosmic orb that wasn’t Earth. In the bloodiest decade of American history since the Civil War (the Vietnam War), Americans were glued to the TV and newspapers as the Apollo missions changed humanity. The photo “Earthrise over the Moon” adorned every newspaper and magazine after its release, and that one picture changed our perspective of Earth and our own humanity forever.
It may be difficult to imagine, but it wasn’t long ago that we essentially had no idea what our surrounding universe actually looked like. We had hazy photos from powerful telescopes and distorted images taken from various portions of the radio and light spectrums, but nothing spectacular. The Hubble Space Telescope changed everything. Hubble’s first set of pictures swept the public by storm, showing us detailed images of nebulae and far-away galaxies. The Hubble Telescope changed our understanding of the universe, and it made space accessible and exciting again. These beautiful images could be appreciated and understood by anyone and everyone, meaning it didn’t take an advanced astrophysics degree to understand how a nebula worked. We could actually SEE how it worked. And it was beautiful.
Lately, space has been rather dull to the majority of the public. Unless you’ve been keeping up with cosmology, astrophysics, and general spacey news, you haven’t heard of anything extremely exciting lately. Sure, we’ve made a few discoveries, sent more supplies to ISS, launched some satellites, and performed other routine activities. But nothing Earth shattering. The question NASA has been trying to answer lately is “What’s our next big thing?”
But it’s important to understand that without public interest, NASA isn’t going to do the next big thing. Given the political nature of congress (duh), they’re not going to invest billions of dollars in an agency that the public doesn’t deem a necessity. To the constituency, there are more important problems money can solve down here. How’s space going to help the economy, jobs, security, or society in general? Neil deGrasse Tyson gave one of the best answers to this question in a speech a few years ago at the 28th National Space Symposium. I highly recommend taking the time to watch it, because he puts into perspective how space exploration touches every aspect of our lives.
But SpaceX just gave NASA the boost (pun intended) it needed to actually begin to provide a sufficient answer to that question. We all know Mars is our next major exploratory step. The only questions are when and how. Landing a booster on a barge in the middle of the ocean may not seem like a direct step towards the red planet, but the downstream effects are huge. SpaceX just proved the concepts of astronautical efficiency, autonomy, and re-usability — three vital components of anything space related. Especially when planning a trip to Mars, efficiency and re-usability will be top on the list to implement into the design (as well as human safety), and autonomy means those humans don’t have to perform every single task required in such a major endeavor. This is one of the first major steps in that direction. It’s the first rung, and we’re about to see more rungs added as NASA and commercial entities team up to figure out the “hows”.
So to most, SpaceX’s latest accomplishment may have been just that — an accomplishment. But it’s more than that. It’s the first step in America’s space revolution (and, I’d argue, re-evolution), and I’m excited to see where those steps take us in our journey through space.