by Shree Bose
In a generation where rapid innovations have reshaped the way we interact, learn, and work, Silicon Valley technologist, Elon Musk, is attempting to revolutionize a field out of this world – the way we explore space. Since the 1950s, with international tensions soaring high, space has been a stage for national competition, with the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union defining space exploration for a number of years. However, in the last few years, with the lack of government funding for nationally affiliated organizations like NASA, international collaboration has flourished and allowed the development of progressive steps like the International Space Station (ISS).
In this new landscape, the previously dominant national space organizations are beginning to be challenged by private sector competition from companies like Musk’s SpaceX or even Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. As human civilization inches forward to milestones of progress previously only considered in science fiction – creating colonies on Mars or understanding biological viability in space – these private companies have begun to accelerate the process and innovate at an unprecedented rate to change the face of space exploration forever.
One such step came recently with the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, one designed to be reusable by landing back on a floating platform 200 miles off the Florida Coast in the Atlantic Ocean. Along with a Dragon capsule meant to shuttle almost 5,200 pounds of science experiments, spare parts, food, water, and other supplies, the combined Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule are meant to separate from one another. While the Dragon capsule blasts off to ISS, the Falcon 9 rocket is designed to use GPS triangulation to make its descent before landing again without damage.
While perhaps conceptually simple, this reusability radically advances traditional rocket design, reducing costs by almost a factor of 100 according to Musk. While each SpaceX resupply mission previously used a separate disposable rocket with a price tag of almost $60 million each, this new design could allow for reusability. So on January 10, 2015 at 4:47 AM EST, the SpaceX Falcon 9 launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, with 50-50 odds of success.
Ultimately, the 14-story rocket did make it back to the spaceport, a major success in itself; however, a hard landing meant the rocket was no longer usable again without new pieces of equipment. In his tweet about the outcome, Musk mentioned the entire mission “bodes well for the future”. And in a world where progress can be made quickly and efficiently, this first attempt does point to a future of cheaper and better space travel. Through these innovative strategies for cutting costs and optimizing design, maybe in a few years we can see pushes towards manned Mars missions, colonizing different planets, and progress for humankind as a whole.
Shree Bose ’16 is a Molecular and Cellular Biology concentrator in Dunster House.
- Klotz, Irene. “SpaceX Rocket Nails Launch but Narrowly Misses Landing Test.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 10 Jan. 2015. Web. 10 Jan. 2015.http://goo.gl/qzJ7GY
- Musk, Elon. “Rocket Made It to Drone Spaceport Ship, but Landed Hard. Close but No Cigar This Time. Bodes Well for the Future Tho.” Twitter. Twitter, 10 Jan. 2015. Web.10 Jan. 2015. <https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/553855109114101760>.