Tuesday, 7 July 2015

What makes SpaceX so special?

With familiar politics trudging on and the Wild West replaying in the cyber realm, it’s easy to forget the central importance for humanity of the infinities of space.

Aside from the implications for modern militaries – with thousands of GPS and telecommunications satellites hurtling around in low-earth orbit – and the temptations of exploration and scientific breakthroughs, the central importance of space in the 21st century will be energy collection.

Space used to be the expensive domain of two only superpowers – the United States and Soviet Russia. Now multiple countries spend precious resources funding their own space programmes in a new race for access to the final frontier.

Governments remain the primary players in China and Japan. Even in the United States where private companies lead the advance, NASA is incentivising space flight by awarding funding contracts to the most successful companies.

It would be slightly misleading to say privately-owned space companies are entirely new ventures. The cumulative costs of government-funded space programmes mean they are inherently commercial. The partnership between private contractors making all the pieces of the NASA space programme and the government makes the missions possible.

However, private space flight is not without its setbacks. One company, SpaceX, experienced a major malfunction on one of its heavy-lift Falcon 9 rockets last week leading to the complete loss of the launch vehicle. The still-unknown cause of the explosion offers a tantalising glimpse into the opportunities of private space flight.

SpaceX has conducted 18 successful launches since its inception, carrying supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) and other missions. The company is also experimenting with a partially reusable rocket system in an effort to lower the cost of sending material into orbit.

And since NASA shut its shuttle programme down in 2011, the United States now relies on Russian rockets almost entirely. If the US is to bring this capability back to its own soil, private companies will be integral.

Currently, NASA pays Russia more than $US60 million per astronaut for a single flight to the ISS in a modern Soyuz rocket. It also costs about $US10-12,000 per kilogram to lift material into orbit. Many companies grit their teeth, however the incentive to lower lift costs clearly exists.

Despite the comparatively high failure rate for Russian rocket systems, the Russian space industry still accounts for almost half of the world’s commercial payload launches. Moscow is aware of the rise of the private space industry and is adapting, but private companies are gaining advantages over government-run programmes.

SpaceX rocket explodes shortly after takeoff
Satellites are the most important payload currently to send into orbit. Commercial satellites can be worth their weight in gold (figuratively speaking), yet some businesses already have other plans for the vast reaches of space.

Space-based solar energy has the potential to create enormous scalable wealth, turning the country that succeeds into a new ‘Saudi Arabia’ of energy. After all, space is the only region which doesn’t have obscuring weather conditions and never experiences night-time.

The limit is not in the underlying idea – plenty of work in miniaturisation of solar panels and battery storage is already underway. Instead, what simultaneously holds back space programmes and whets their appetite is the prohibitive costs of lifting material into orbit and keeping it there.

This is why it will be important to watch the rapid development of SpaceX and other companies over the next few decades. Its recent failure proves this venture is an extremely difficult one, but it also highlights how many influential eyes are watching SpaceX’s progress for investment opportunities.

Should private companies or government programmes tear down the cost of lift, the final frontier could become one of the most important developments for human civilisation since the discovery of the New World. That’s the theory anyway.

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