It feels like it was just a few weeks ago that I was at another Elon Musk special event, but here I went again … this time to Florida for the Space X Falcon Heavy launch in Cape Canaveral, Florida. It was a hurry up and wait experience with multiple delays to see the Falcon Heavy launch a 6,000-kg (13,200 lb) Lockheed Martin-built Arabsat 6A satellite into orbit. It’s only the Falcon Heavy’s second flight and first commercial flight. But it’s an important milestone and one that got me thinking about why companies like Space X are critical for the future of space flight and exploration.
Oh … and also … getting to see the most powerful rocket currently in operation take off.
We all know the origins of the space race and how the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union spurred rapid exploration and innovation into space flight. After things cooled off and the Apollo program was shelved, we entered into an era of more “mundane” space exploration. This is when the science of space exploration really took the lead, but it’s also a time where public interest began to wane.
In the U.S., the NASA budget is always under incredible scrutiny and considered wasteful by some, even though NASA’s entire budget is less than 0.5% of the entire Federal budget. Or as Neil Degrasse Tyson put it…
“If you hold up a literal dollar and then take scissors and cut one half of one percent of its width, you don’t even get into the ink from the side of the dollar.” -Neil DeGrasse Tyson
That’s why companies like Space X and Blue Origin are important. They’re helping to commoditize space flight by making it cheaper and more efficient. In order to do that, we have to stop being wasteful and reuse our rockets. Imagine if we threw away an entire airplane, or most of it, after each flight. But even a system that’s reusable isn’t guaranteed to be the cheapest method. The Space Shuttle was reusable, but it was a very expensive operation.
The absolutely fantastic YouTube channel, The Everyday Astronaut, did a great breakdown comparing the Falcon Heavy to the Space Shuttle. I’ll include a link in the description and recommend watching it. But at a high level here’s how it breaks down.
- NASA charged $450 million.
- Up to 27,500 KG payload.
- That’s $16,363 per KG.
- Space X charges $90 million.
- Up to 30,000 KG payload.
- About $3,000 per KG.
So why the huge gap in cost? First is time. There’s been a lot of advancements in the 40+ years since the Space Shuttle was developed and built. Second is that we were still figuring out the basics of space flight. The Space Shuttle was a very complex vehicle that required a lot of maintenance, some of which cost a lot more than expected. For instance, the thermal protection tiles turned out to be incredibly labor intensive and costly to maintain and manufacture.1
In comparison, you have a company like Space X that doesn’t have any baggage to deal with, but the benefit of what came before. Tackling affordable space flight with a clean slate and modern technologies and techniques gives Space X the edge. Space X is also run like a more modern company. One that’s not afraid to stop in it’s tracks to make changes to a design and not fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy.2
The Falcon Heavy, which is based off of the Falcon 9, was announced in 2011 just a year or two after the Falcon 9 had just gotten off the ground. The original intent was to have heavier load capacity available within a couple of years with the Falcon Heavy. However, we didn’t see the first launch of the Falcon Heavy until Elon shot his Tesla into space in 2018. So why the delay? Well, the Falcon 9 had some maturing to do and the Space X team saw ways to significantly improve that platform. Some of those improvements gave the Falcon 9 much heavier lift capability on its own, which caused delays and rethinking on the Falcon Heavy.
It’s that kind of nimbleness that has allowed Space X to not get bogged down in the “we’ve already spent this much money, we might as well go the rest of the way or use what we’ve got” type of thinking. The improvements to the Falcon 9 ended up with bigger improvements to the Falcon Heavy, which in the end is helping with the capacity they’re able to launch into space and the final cost per launch.
I may be opening Pandora’s box here by bringing this up, but there’s also the giant question of, “Why spend money exploring and sending things to space? We have enough problems down here.” For me there’s a few good reasons:
- Innovation – we have so many things we take for granted in our daily lives that came through innovations funded by NASA. Some recent examples are GPS signal correction software created by JPL, which enhances precision for agriculture, airplane navigation, and smartphone locations. Or the systems used to bring back samples from Mars being used now in life-saving sutures during heart surgery. Or a lightweight, high-pressure tank NASA invented to hold rocket fuel being used to store oxygen to keep pilots, firefighters, and intensive care patients breathing.3 There’s a massive list of items I could run through.
- Learning – by exploring space we learn more about how our planet was formed and how it’s changing. Looking at our sister planets in the solar system and around the galaxy we can learn not only how we got here, but where things might be heading.
- Inspiration – and this is a big one for me and ties back strongly to the first two points. John F. Kennedy’s rallying cry, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”4
We get inspired by seeing what humankind is able to achieve when we put our minds and efforts to it. Setting what seems like an insurmountable goal helps us to push ourselves to do things we never thought possible. And achieving those impossible goals helps to inspire future scientist and researchers, which in turn helps to enable the innovation that powers our economy and the world.
We’ve been benefiting from the innovations discovered by the research of NASA and other organizations for the past 40 years. Space X’s ultimate goal is to send people to Mars and colonize it. To make humankind multi-planetary. It’s a grand vision and one that will bring along with it many more innovations and advancements. With companies like Space X and Blue Origin handling the launch vehicles, it frees NASA up to focus on the science and exploration. Ultimately being able to achieve a lot more for the same amount of money.
But there’s also this last point … getting to see the most power rocket in operation take off.
The Secret Level 3 Tesla event was held at Exploration Tower, which was about 15 km from the launch site. It’s the tallest building in the area, so we had an unobstructed view to the launch site.
After 3 delays and 5 days past the original launch date, Space X was finally able to launch.
It was funny to hear how long it took for the sound of takeoff to reach us that far away, but also impressive at how loud it still was at that distance.
One of the things that surprised me was how bright the rocket was in the sky. It doesn’t come across in the video, but it was a little painful to look at. Almost like a tiny sun coming out of the rocket.
But the absolute coolest part was seeing the boosters land themselves. For that we had an amazing view because we were less than 5 km away. It was a little like something out of a sci-fi movie watching them straighten their decent, fire their boosters at what felt like a moment too late, and then touch down gently.
And then there was the sonic boom from the booster breaking the speed of sound during decent. Again, it didn’t hit us until after the boosters had already landed. It caught a few of us by surprise.
This has been something I’ve been wanting to see since I was a little kid and saw the first Space Shuttle take off on TV. In 2011 I was invited to a NASA special event to see the GRAIL mission launch, which included talking to the scientists involved with the mission, getting a tour of the Vehicle Assembly Building, seeing Space Shuttle Endeavor getting decommissioned, and spending the better part of a day with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. An amazing experience that ended with the launch getting scrubbed due to high altitude wind shear.
Eight years later, and thanks to Tesla, I got a front row seat to see one of the most powerful rockets in the world take off … and land. An absolutely crazy experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. And I have to give the Tesla referral team a big thank you for putting on such a great event, dealing with the delays, and making sure all of us were able to see the launch. And an even bigger thank you to all of you that used my Tesla referral code and made this possible. Thank you.
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1: Criticism of the Space Shuttle program
4: John F. Kenney’s address at Rice University on the nation’s space effort