Going to Mars

On June 4, 2010 Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX, launched their Falcon 9 rocket for the first time. The flight successfully placed its upper stage into orbit. The corporation had only been in existence for seven years. In that brief time, they designed two new rockets from scratch, along with their rocket engines. And SpaceX spent only 300 million dollars and became profitable. In 2006, NASA awarded SpaceX a 1.2 billion dollar contract to launch twelve cargo missions to the International Space Station. They will get paid bit by bit for each successful mission.

About six months after the Falcon 9’s maiden voyage, on December 8, 2010, SpaceX launched their Dragon capsule into orbit. It circled the Earth twice and safely parachuted to a water landing. It was the first time a private corporation had launched an object into orbit and recovered it safely.

Since then, SpaceX has sent three Dragons to the International Space Station. Out of five launches of the Falcon 9, there have been 5 successes.

The launch vehicle for the Dragon cargo spaceship is the Falcon 9, a two stage rocket that uses 9 Merlin engines in the first stage and one Merlin engine in the second stage. Each engine develops 125,000 pounds of thrust at sea level. Thus, a Falcon 9 can put 23,000 pounds into low earth orbit, or 10,000 pounds into geo-synchronous orbit. A Falcon 9 stands 178 feet tall at launch and has a diameter of 12 feet.

SpaceX is currently manufacturing one new Falcon 9 and one new Dragon spaceship every three months. The number of people working for SpaceX stands at about 1100 and the company is hiring. In addition to contracts with NASA, SpaceX has secured contracts for multiple satellite launches for the next ten years from a variety of nations and corporations.

Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX has long term goals for his company beyond simply supplying the space station with cargo. He also has plans to make all parts of his Falcon 9 rocket reusable and intends to develop heavy lift versions of the Falcon 9. The first of these, the Falcon 9 Heavy, is scheduled for its first launch in late 2013 or early 2014. It will take off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, where SpaceX has nearly finished building a launch complex for it. The Falcon 9 Heavy will be able to deliver a Dragon spaceship to the surface of Mars. It is able to carry twice the weight that the Space Shuttle could.

SpaceX has a goal of making their rockets fully reusable. By making all parts of the Falcon 9 reusable, Musk hopes to drive down launch costs even more than he already has. He pointed out that commercial air travel would not be economically feasible if a jet airliner could only be used once and then had to be thrown away. If space ships can become fully reusable, the cost of spaceflight will drop precipitously, so that the primary costs of going into space will then be the cost of fuel, maintenance, and the salaries of the workers involved—similar to the cost structure for commercial aviation.

Even today, with the Falcon 9 still not being reusable, SpaceX is able to put things in orbit for much less than any other company. In fact, SpaceX currently undercuts even the Chinese launch systems by such a margin that the Chinese government is unable to compete. Once reusability come online in the next few years, SpaceX will be the cheapest way to fly. The first test of a reusable Falcon 9 first stage should occur later this year, when on regular cargo run to the space station, SpaceX will attempt a powered landing of the first stage over water.

The Dragon spaceship is not designed to simply loft cargo. It is designed to carry seven astronauts. Elon Musk’s long term goals, stated since he founded the company in 2002, is to make possible the colonization of Mars and the expansion of humanity throughout the solar system. Because of those goals, SpaceX is not a publically traded corporation. Musk doesn’t want to have to justify his choices to stockholders.

Although SpaceX is profitable, Musk has stated that if he were just trying to make money, he wouldn’t be building rockets. Someone once said that the best way to make a million dollars is rocketry is to start out with a billion.

Musk intends to land the first people on Mars by 2030. He has predicted that by 2050 a family of four will be able to emigrate to Mars as colonists for about what they would spend on buying an average suburban house. He figures that’s about the equivalent of what those migrating in wagon trains from the east to California invested back in the 1800s.

Not everyone will want to become Martian colonists, of course—any more than everyone in the east wanted to come to California in 1849. But Musk believes that enough will go to make the venture a success.

For Elon Musk, every launch of a Falcon 9 is one more step on a long road to the exploitation of the solar system and its colonization by humanity—not by the government, but by private enterprise.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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