Is SpaceX changing the rocket equation?
1 visionary + 3 launchers + 1,500 employees = ?
- By Andrew Chaikin
- Air & Space magazine, January 2012
(Page 4 of 4)
The insistence on reusability “drives the engineers insane,” says Vozoff. “We could’ve had Falcon 1 in orbit two years earlier than we did if Elon had just given up on first stage reusability. The qualification for the Merlin engine was far outside of what was necessary, unless you plan to recover it and reuse it. And so the engineers are frustrated because this isn’t the quickest means to the end. But Elon has this bigger picture in mind. And he forces them to do what’s hard. And I admire that about him.”
Musk makes no secret of the end goal: Create a new civilization on Mars. Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in September, he outlined the business plan—if that’s the right term for something that looks decades into the future. “If you can reduce the cost of moving to Mars to around the cost of a middle class home in California—maybe to around half a million dollars—then I think enough people would buy a ticket and move to Mars,” he said. “You obviously have to have quite an appetite for risk and adventure. But there are seven billion people on Earth now, and there’ll be probably eight billion by the midpoint of the century. So even if one in a million people decided to do that, that’s still eight thousand people. And I think probably more than one in a million people will decide to do that.” Talking about a city on Mars by the middle of this century—even as SpaceX has yet to fly its first cargo mission to Earth orbit—is one of the reasons space professionals are skeptical about Musk’s claims.
Meanwhile, SpaceX has the immediate hurdle of converting the doubters with a track record of low cost and reliability. Rivals know that success would hit the rocket business like a tsunami, and at least one aerospace engineer greets that prospect with a mix of hope and doubt. “Honestly, as an American, I want them to succeed,” says Mike Hughes, who works for a company (he asked that it not be named) planning a competing crew vehicle. “If I see SpaceX failing their launches and killing crew, I will be disheartened and weakened…. I want them to be our competition.” But Hughes predicts SpaceX will have to learn the same painful lessons that every other rocket builder has. “Over time, they will experience failure. The failure will teach them that they weren’t so smart when they laid out the numbers at the beginning. Just like us, just like NASA. And they’re going to have to redesign stuff. And they’re going to have to add new tests in. And their schedules will slip, and their customers will suffer. And all of this is because what we do is just freaking hard.”
No one needs to tell the people at SpaceX that they’re pushing the limits of technology. But Alan Stern, for one, remains convinced that Musk is in it for the long haul. “He wants to make people a multi-planet species, and he’s not going to quit. He’ll change the model, or he’ll spend more of his own money—he’ll do something. He’s not in it to build the rockets; that’s a means to an end. It’s a religion for him.”
If Stern is right, when the astronauts aboard the International Space Station receive their six tons of supplies from a SpaceX vehicle launched by a SpaceX rocket next year, they just might be witnessing the first step in a journey to Mars.
Andrew Chaikin, author of Voices From the Moon (Studio, 2009), plans to cover the first commercial lunar landing — as a crew member.