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.
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).