Billionaire Elon Musk has grand ambitions. He seeks to transform the automobile market with his Tesla electric car. The Hyperloop high-speed transportation system will reinvent mass transit. And his SpaceX program aims to “save humanity” by reducing the risk of human extinction. SpaceX took a giant step forward last week when its Falcon Heavy booster propelled a privately funded payload out of Earth’s orbit for the first time ever.
Falcon Heavy’s success is a milestone in a new space race, one that is fundamentally different from that of the Cold War. The previous competition was contested by governments. Today it is driven by private entrepreneurs who mix grand visions with the profit motive. Governments are not disinterested observers, however. Outer space remains vital to various national interests and governments are deeply involved in the space race, as customers and participants.
For the first time in history, the most powerful rocket in the world is private property. The Falcon Heavy can put a 64 metric ton payload into low Earth orbit, twice the size of what is capable of being lifted by the world’s second-most powerful rocket. Significantly, it does the job for one-third the cost. As a rule of thumb, it has cost about $10,000 to get 500 kg into space; Falcon Heavy does it for about $1,000, an order of magnitude difference. A big part of the reason is that the boosters are reusable: Falcon Heavy’s three boosters return to Earth in controlled landings. In last week’s launch, two made it back successfully, landing almost simultaneously near the launch pad. The third was aimed at a drone ship several hundred kilometers out to sea. It missed the target and was destroyed after hitting the water at high speed. The cost savings have recalibrated the economics of space travel, and experts believe further reductions are possible. This is the basis of Musk’s dream of opening space to ordinary citizens.
Musk had calculated the launch’s chances of success at 50 percent. Most observers consider the program an almost unalloyed success, the loss of the booster notwithstanding. His rivals — Blue Origin, backed by Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Rocket Lab, a New Zealand startup that anticipates its first launch into orbit soon — must now respond in kind.
Private companies joined the space race in 1980. According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, there have been 202 U.S. commercial launches between 1990 and 2017; Europe launched 169 rockets and Russia was third with 162. Asian countries have awakened to the need for robust space programs. China has had 23 launches since 1990, while India has had four. China became the third country to send an astronaut into space in October 2003, and in October 2007 it became the fifth nation to successfully orbit the moon. Beijing has announced that it plans a crewed mission to the moon by 2020 and will send its “taikonauts” to Mars between 2040 and 2060.
Japan has not stood idly. Its program is more conventional — i.e., government run — but it has assumed increasing importance in recent years. An unmanned vehicle dropped to the moon’s surface in 2009. The Office of Space Policy was created in July 2012 and the New Basic Plan for Space Policy was established in January 2013. That plan was revised in 2015, based on the growing recognition of space to national development and national security. Mindful of those national security implications, Japan is working closely with the United States on outer space cooperation and with India to develop its space program. Earlier this month, Japan launched a microsatellite into space aboard the smallest satellite-carrying rocket ever used. The rocket was about the same size as a utility pole and weighed only 2,900 kg at launch. This approach is the opposite of Musk’s strategy. Smaller is more affordable and as equipment is miniaturized, satellites will shrink in size, expanding the range of commercial uses.
Many payloads will remain large, however, and they will demand Musk’s muscular technology. Large launch vehicles will be essential to human space travel, and Musk’s goal is spreading humanity to other planets: Mars is his ultimate target, but space tourism — slingshot travel around the moon — is an interim step.
One advantage of a private program is that it can give full expression to the owner’s whims. The Falcon Heavy payload consisted of Musk’s own cherry-red Tesla Roadster with a space-suited mannequin in the driver’s seat. It was playing David Bowie and its dashboard reminded observers to “Don’t Panic,” the seminal line from Douglas Adams’ classic book, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” But while the tone is light, the ambitions are grand.