SpaceX sits in good company. It is a Californian technology start-up that is revolutionising the industry in which it operates. That sentence could easily describe Apple, Google, Amazon, or many other companies. But SpaceX aren’t in the business of building computers, providing search engines, or offering inexpensive consumer goods. They build spaceships. They build rockets. And they build them well. They build them so well that the Germans ask how they can make them so efficiently, and the Chinese want to know how they make them so cheaply.
Category Archives: Space
If you look at things over a broad span of time, things that are less important fall away. And if you look at things with the broadest possible span of time, with regards to the evolution of life – primitive life started 4 billion years ago – what are the important steps in the evolution of life? Well, obviously there was the advent of single celled life; there was the differentiation between plants and animals, life moving from the oceans onto land, then the development of mammals, and the ignition of the spark of human consciousness. And on that scale, I would argue that on that scale should also fit life becoming multiplanetary.
Life becoming multiplanetary is the natural successor to consciousness, because you need consciousness in order for a species to reach the point at which they are able to develop the technological ability to migrate from one planet to the next. This involves travelling millions of miles through irradiated vacuum, all the while living in an environment they did not evolve to exist in. We are currently living in just such a technological window where this may be possible, and we should exploit that fact. The window will not be open forever. All civilisations rise and fall, and with it, the abilities of that civilisation.
I think that if one can make the argument that something is important enough to fit onto the scale of evolution, then it is important, and maybe worth investing a little of our resources into. This doesn’t need to be a lot; it should definitely be a lot less than what we spend on healthcare, but maybe it should be more than we spend on lipstick.
I really don’t understand the argument that “we shouldn’t go into space without fixing earth’s problems first.” Why do people think that aerospace engineers have a duty to eradicate poverty, or create world peace?
People have a misconception that money we spend on anything space-related simply burns up. On the contrary: that money goes to pay for engineers and scientists and technicians and goods and all sorts of things, all of which goes back into the economy. Not to mention the added benefits of the research that organizations such as NASA do, which bring about (directly or indirectly) technology that impacts our everyday lives: see NASA-spinoffs.
Robert Heinlein once observed that “Once you get to earth orbit, you’re halfway to anywhere in the solar system.” How unfortunate then, that in recent years, many within the space establishment appear to have completely given up on lowering the cost of reaching orbit. From the ever increasing costs of the heavily subsidized EELV program to the astronomical estimates for the Space Launch System, (each claiming they are “cost effective,” by the way) current NASA space transportation systems, with one critical exception, are all headed in the wrong direction.
The exception of course, is the COTS program, which has helped to sponsor the development of two new launch vehicles, the Orbital Sciences Antares, and the SpaceX Falcon. The former offers a modest return to the historical pricing level of early launch vehicles. The latter however, is utterly revolutionary.
Congratulations to the great Elon Musk, whose Dragon capsule has successfully docked to the Space Station for the second time. SpaceX is moving along in leaps and bounds. Musk has long since stated that his ultimate goal is to successfully land people on the planet Mars. I fully believe he will accomplish that goal. He has even said that he would like to get the cost down to around half a million dollars, which would make moving to Mars a realistic goal for millions of people. I know that if I had the money, and he had the spacecraft, it’d be a tempting offer.
So when humans get to Mars, obviously the first priority would be survival. Mars is a hostile place. It is a freezing -60°C, there is no oxygen, and the atmosphere is only 1% the pressure of Earth’s. Clearly, we will be living indoors. Moving around outside would be possible with the use of pressure suits and oxygen tanks, but the cold would present a real challenge. Most of the energy produced would be used in just keeping us warm.
The Earth, at first glance, seems a pretty unique place. It’s the only known planet to support life. However, anyone with a basic grasp of arithmetic can see how that shouldn’t be the case; there are somewhere in the region of 300,000,000,000 (three hundred billion) stars in our galaxy, and most are thought to have planets in orbit around them. Furthermore, our galaxy itself is only one of roughly 1,000,000,000,000 (a trillion) that are known to exist in the universe. If only one in a million stars had a planet around it, and only one in a million of those planets supported life, and one in a million of those living planets had intelligent life, there would be literally hundreds of thousands of civilisations in the universe.
Our human civilisation is really very noisy. We leak communications into space. The Wi-Fi box in your living room doesn’t aim its signal at your computer, it broadcasts in every direction; your mobile phone is the same, broadcasting in every direction. Some of the signal created by your conversations goes straight up into space. Of course, telephones and internet routers are small, low powered devices. The real loud-mouths are the television and radio masts, which boom their signal into the cosmos. So if alien civilisations exist, and if they are as noisy as us, why haven’t we heard them?
The first fifty years of human spaceflight have been totally dominated by governmental organisations. America, Russia, Europe and China have all used tax revenue to finance the difficult engineering task of sending a human into space and returning him safely. The difficulties involved mean that it is also very expensive – but any man or woman with sufficient cash should be able to organise getting a human off Earth. So who will do it first? And who will do it coolest?
SpaceX are a company based in Los Angeles that is focused on developing affordable access to space. The founder and CEO of SpaceX is Elon Musk, the man who was the real-life inspiration for Iron Man’s Tony Stark. Having become a billionaire after founding PayPal and Tesla Motors, Musk realised that the only way that space could become accessible to the average person was if the cost was lowered tenfold or greater. With reusability in mind, he designed the Dragon capsule and the Falcon family of rockets. The Dragon spacecraft has actually flown, attaining Earth orbit in December 2010 (below are some photographs of the maiden flight). Though it was unmanned, it could have held up to seven passengers, who according to Musk “would’ve had a very nice flight.” Dragon’s next flight is scheduled for April 2012, where it will rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS).