Right off the bat, let us just say that, when the history of this era is written, Elon Musk will be remembered as a pioneer. His vision of a new order of things has ushered-in a new era in the history of mankind. Right after his groundbreaking innovations in the car industry with Tesla Motors, the conquering billionaire is now applying the same methodology in spaceflight.
And yet we all remember that, not long ago, journeys to the cosmos were the exclusive domain of national agencies (Nasa for the United States, Roscosmos for Russia, Esa for the European Union, Jaxa for Japan, etc…), with the full force of government funding behind them. With Elon Musk’s latest innovations leading the field in the space industry, around the world, hundreds of companies are now vying for a piece of an already lucrative pie valued at over $300 billion. This is indeed the dawn of the space age. As an african, it would be wonderful to see more engineers, members of the african diaspora, taking part in the research opportunities available now. Experiences gathered from those opportunities would eventually be useful for Africa in a later time.
That being said, here is why we think you should care about the historic event that took place on Monday night, local time. On december 21st of this year, Elon Musk’s private spaceflight company SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies) successfully brought back to earth the rocket’s first stage booster, upright and intact. This event took place ten minutes after the Falcon-9 rocket successfully deployed 11 satellites into orbit.
In more than 65 years of launches, a rocket landing anywhere near its launch pads meant something had gone terribly wrong. Not this time. Not at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station where Elon Musk’s SpaceX believes many more controlled rocket flights up and down will occur, starting with a dozen or more missions planned next year.
This was the first time an unmanned rocket has successfully landed upright after a commercial launch. In the space industry, this achievement is said to be revolutionary. Many say this innovation will help dramatically reduce the cost of space travel. Below is a tweet sent by the SpaceX company’s founder, Elon Musk.
11 satellites deployed to target orbit and Falcon has landed back at Cape Canaveral. Headed to LZ-1. Welcome back, baby!
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 22, 2015
In a similar way, SpaceX commentators described the launch and return of the orbital rocket as “incredibly exciting”.
“This was a first for us at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and I can’t even begin to describe the joy the team feels right now having been a part of this historic first-stage rocket landing,” the top officer at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Brigadier General Wayne Monteith, said in a statement.
Are there disgruntled people unimpressed with this milestone in spaceflight?
Of course there are many grumpy critics who are already trying, very hard, to downplay this major event. After any major event, there are people who always second-guess the characteristic of the innovation. They are the monday morning quaterbacks. They always criticize and pass judgment from a position of hindsight. In this case, the latest SpaceX success has some people from Arianespace (the european commercial satellite launch service) wondering whether Elon Musk latest achievement is really a big deal. Why would anyone question such an achievement?
Well, here are some of their reasons… According to Stéphane Israël, the CEO of Arianespace, there is nothing impressive about what he has seen from the SpaceX company latest success on Monday night. To illustrate his point, the french civil servant said that despite all the praises deserved by the successful launch performed by the SpaceX rocket, this event was only possible in a low earth orbit (an orbit around our planet with an altitude between 160 kilometers [100 miles], and 2’000 kilometers [1’250 miles]).
Furthermore, from an economic standpoint, not only Stéphane Israël doesn’t see a single safety guarantee or any efficiency, for that matter, of a reusable rocket; his skepticism also leads him to downplay the economic and commercial aspects of last Monday success. For one, the costs involved in the reusability of rockets imply an extensive and expensive refurbishment. How much work will it take, and at what cost, to ready SpaceX reusable rockets for additional flights? How frequently can they fly?
While taking that stand, Stéphane Israël suggests that Elon Musk’ SpaceX milestone should not be the only way to apply innovation into spaceflights. Additionally, real affordable and innovative solutions will be found in the making of cheapest launchers, or as he calls them, mini-launchers. According to him, the building costs of those mini-launchers should have a price tag not exceeding $10 million for satellites of 10 kg.
The Arianespace CEO is not the only to doubt the efficiency of the new standard in spaceflights promoted by SpaceX.
“Their ultimate goal is to have [rockets] operate a little more like an airplane, where you can take off and land many times,” said Henry Hertzfeld, research professor of space policy and international affairs at George Washington University. “this hasn’t been done, really, in the space area, and we have to wait and see if they can do it, and how much cheaper it really will be, if at all.”
“The only example I can really think of is the shuttle,” he added. “Each time it landed it was practically rebuilt.”
Musk expects the just-landed Falcon 9 stage to be tested again on the ground, but kept for its historical value rather than launching again. He hopes a booster recovered on a future flight can fly a second time as soon as next year.
What customer will take a chance to put his/her satellite on top of a reused launcher?
Beyond questions about how much refurbishing rockets will cost and how often they can fly is the reality that satellites are expensive. Most of the time, they are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, sometimes more than a billion. And their owners are not especially risk savvy.
And here is where Stéphane Israël’s critique makes sense. Since the space industry is similar to any other business, SpaceX will have to convince its customers that flying on his used rockets versus the competitor’s shiny new ones — beside being affordable — will be an effective and guaranteed way to expand their business.
Elon Musk is a pioneer. He will certainly find a way moving forward, leading the pack once again. And now, I can hear him say: “Throw me to the wolves and I’ll return leading the pack”.