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A Brief History of a Troubled Pursuit in the Age of Commercial Spaceflight
If you had asked me five years ago what my ultimate goal in life was, I would have undoubtedly stated with confidence that it was to take part in the human exploration of Mars. Uplifted, brimming with optimism, and nostalgic for futures yet to pass after reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s unprecedented Mars Trilogy for the second time, I was dead set upon this singular goal. Amidst the throes of life and labor, my longing to live on Mars and personally experience our Solar system in general has remained steadfast and has continued to be fueled by a broad range of science fiction and space opera, among other things.
Now, it has been no easy task to keep those goals intact, and I cannot begin to count the number of times I have communicated those goals to others and experienced something akin to what someone in 1960 maintaining serious goals of visiting space and the Moon might have experienced — usually disdain, sometimes mild interest, and mostly polite dismissal and change of subject. I cannot blame people for this response, for all significant leaps made by humankind have been figuratively laughed out of the room at one time or another, and often just before they succeeded. Spaceflight is one of the best examples, with science fiction initially probing the willingness of the public’s imagination, central scientific and scholarly figures dismissing the possibility outright, and ups and downs of initial experimentation demonstrating both its futility and potential. Ultimately, the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Soviet space programs invalidated a great deal of criticism and doubt while simultaneously demonstrating space exploration’s ability to capture the attention of a great many people, albeit under the iron curtain of the Cold War. Even if these programs and their subsequent accomplishments occurred not out of the desire to explore and discover but rather as a means to demonstrate the superiority of a political and economic ideology, it was nevertheless an awe-inspiring period for human exploration, technological development, and scientific inquiry.
Jump approximately half a century forward after Apollo 17 and one will find that the state of astronautics and space exploration are truly difficult to believe, in a sense of both intense disappointment and esteem. The impact of the United States Congress’ complete and utter failure to properly take advantage of the technology developed over the course of the Apollo Program is ever so painfully evident to this day, having led to a series of connected missteps over the course of NASA’s existence. The premature cancellation of the Apollo Program and complete dismissal of the Saturn family of rockets resulted in a five-year period wherein the U.S. was incapable of launching its own astronauts. This event marked the beginning of an apparent trend that saw itself repeated following the shuttering of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011 — the development of which led to the premature retirement of the Saturn family of rockets — in order to free up NASA’s budget to inexplicably allow for the development of another series of rockets as part of President Bush Jr.’s Constellation Program, which later found itself cancelled (for good reason) and again largely revived with the present Space Launch System.
Upon further examination of the Apollo, Space Shuttle, Constellation, and SLS programs, some rather disturbing realities set in. Following the cancellation of Apollo, Congress, the President, the Air Force, and the Department of Defense in general all had significant interest in the pursuance of much more affordable and rapid access to space by way of reusability, something that they all viewed was best achieved by way of a space plane. Each party had their own explicit and varied concepts for what that space plane might look like, and the Air Force, Department of Defense, and NASA were all engaged in scaled studies of demonstrators. To simplify a complex series of events, Congress and President Nixon ultimately decided that there should only be one spaceplane developed, and that that singular vehicle would be required to satisfy the goals of all parties to the greatest extent possible in order to allow its development to tap into the Department of Defense’s budgetary surplus. Furthermore, in order to satisfy the Senators and Congresspeople central to the development of the Apollo Program hardware, NASA was required to make use of all presently existing facilities, hardware, and expertise in their efforts to design and develop what would eventually become the Space Shuttle. As a consequence of this, the Space Shuttle was in no way an optimal design, as it first and foremost was the innate result of political and bureaucratic compromise on a vast scale. In fact, at least one of the two complete failures of the Shuttle (making it the deadliest spacecraft to have ever flown) can in large part be linked directly to one of those compromises, namely the general requirement that the Shuttle be completely reusable, resulting in the use of an exceptionally fragile (it could be broken by falling foam from the Shuttle’s external fuel tank) and complex thermal protection system being flown.
The Constellation Program, enacted by President Bush Jr. and pursued from 2005 to 2009, was even worse off. More or less the political pet project of a Presidential administration in their final term, Constellation was intended to take humans back to the Moon and eventually to Mars, and entailed the development of a super heavy launch vehicle and smaller launch vehicle for crews. Both of these were required to make use of Shuttle hardware and research, thus paving the road for the Space Launch System (SLS) that was to follow after Constellation was cancelled, largely due to massive budget overruns, gross safety concerns, and a NASA budget that was many times too small to support such ventures on a reasonable timescale. Arising from the grave of Constellation, the Obama administration’s Space Launch System and #JourneyToMars campaign began in earnest. Examined now, it is clear that all SLS learned from the failure of the Constellation Program was a strategy of legal obfuscation and legislated requirements of non-transparency, thus making the SLS Program extraordinarily difficult to characterize or cancel. Of course, the hints of commercial lobbyist fingers pulling strings can be easily observed, given that both Constellation and SLS heavily rely upon Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital-ATK, and Aerojet-Rocketdyne; as well as the fact that the districts of the legislative members of space-related committees featured in Congress and the Senate tend to host large manufacturing and testing facilities developed by NASA and the commercial entities listed above. A mere coincidence this is not.
Nevertheless, the subject of commercial involvement in NASA and aerospace endeavors in general brings me to a more positive topic: the modern renaissance being experienced throughout the aerospace industry. While incredible things are being done with satellite miniaturization among other things, my main focus lies upon Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, more commonly known as SpaceX. Founded by the same individual who co-founded Tesla Motors, popularized a vacuum train concept known as the Hyperloop, and created Paypal, SpaceX has from the outset operated towards a single goal of colonizing Mars in order to better ensure the survival of humanity, while also inherently disrupting the aerospace industry (which was at the time ruled by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, later to become the United Launch Alliance monopoly). One could argue that they have thoroughly accomplished the latter goal, as SpaceX currently offers the most affordable launch prices (by a factor of two or more in the U.S.) and is also relentlessly pursuing a strategy of reusability in order to make their launch pricing magnitudes more affordable. Furthermore, SpaceX developed their second launch vehicle and orbital capsule, Falcon and Dragon, so fast and so efficiently that an optimistic NASA-produced estimate of development cost was more than 10 times higher than the reality. Nevertheless, there have been missteps along the way. SpaceX’s recent on-pad failure, captured in a dramatic and highly popularized video, has not been easy and simply demonstrates the inherent difficulties and risks that must be faced when attempting to push the margins with something as sensitive as spaceflight. This is thankfully accepted by the industries who rely upon access to space, and thus SpaceX’s many customers have responded pragmatically, and SpaceX has been treating this failure as another method of examining their vehicle in detail in order to better understand potential routes of failure and consequently ensure that they have the safest possible vehicle to conduct their initial upcoming manned launches.
Most importantly, this mishap has clearly failed to dampen SpaceX’s goal of creating a colony on Mars. In late September 2016, after more than a year and a half of anticipation in the aerospace community, Elon Musk took to the main stage of the International Aeronautical Conference and revealed the spacecraft and launch vehicle that SpaceX intends to use to construct a vast, self-sustaining colony on Mars. Deemed the Interplanetary Transport System, it hopes to exploit complete reusability and the benefits of mass production already demonstrated with the Falcon 9 in order to decrease the cost of trip to Mars by five million percent, thus optimistically opening the figurative gates to Mars by offering a ticket price equivalent to a modern luxury car or averagely priced house ($100,000 to $500,000). The shock value alone is enough to sow doubt in many. The combined spaceship and booster will stand 10 meters taller and 2 meters wider than Saturn V, the currently largest rocket to have ever flown successfully. Used in an expendable configuration, it would be capable of lofting more than four times the payload of Saturn V (550 metric tons), and up to 300 metric tons of payload to low Earth orbit while operating as a fully reusable system. The entire system will have a liftoff mass of 10,500 metric tons and produce 13,000 metric tons of thrust, both nearly four times as much as Saturn V. Framed in a fittingly staggering manner, the ITS booster at launch would momentarily produce as much power as the entire grid of the United States produces on average, 500 gigawatts.
Seated in the audience of the Guadalajara Expo events room, I will admit that even I was quite skeptical. If successful, SpaceX would be leaping ahead of all competition and truly opening space to the masses, while also completely upsetting current accepted norms of what can be done in space. For perspective, the downright vast International Space Station, constructed over the course of more than a decade with more than 100 launches required at a cost of possibly $100 billion or more, masses in at about 430 metric tons. A single ITS ship could theoretically loft that mass and then some in a single launch, and at a cost of approximately $250 million. While of course that is an unfair comparison, it is still fair to judge the cost of the ISS almost entirely as a reflection of the launch costs, given that the 36 Shuttle launches it required cost NASA at least $50 billion, with the reasonable assumption that each STS launch was around $1.5 billion. Continuing on, SpaceX’s timescale noted that the ITS structure and propulsion systems are expected to be completed by the end of 2018, with complete ITS ship and booster test articles entering test phases in mid-2018 and early 2019 respectively. In this theoretical (and admittedly optimistic) schedule, cargo flights to Mars would begin in 2022, and the first ITS with passengers would depart for Mars in late 2024 (approximately 8 years from today) for a landing in early 2025. The next likeliest “competitor”, NASA, has no public schedule or plan whatsoever for their “#JourneyToMars” and have at best hinted at manned missions beginning in the late 2030s or early 2040s, although such an accomplishment would require massive budget increases for the agency. SpaceX’s claims are truly extraordinary in their audaciousness. Their ultimate goal in creating this rocket and vehicle are to eventually allow for the creation of a self-sustaining colony of hundreds of thousands of people on Mars, an outpost that would optimistically act as a fail-safe for humanity in the event of a global catastrophe on Earth. They hope to make this possible by lowering the ticket price per individual to something under $200,000, or much lower than the average price of a single family home in the United States.
Yet still, two major features of the presentation allayed the majority of my skepticism: not only has the company completed an ITS engine test article and begun to test fire it, they have also completed a full scale carbon composite propellant tank for the spaceship and successfully put it through an initial series of tests. Examined as a technological system, these two aspects are arguably the biggest hurdles for the ITS to solve, as neither technology has ever flown successfully. These successful hardware demonstrations act as a massive source of optimism for SpaceX’s bold goals and timeline, as the breadth of their present-day accomplishments nearly match the sheer boldness of their ambitions. Furthermore, Elon Musk’s incredible desire to make this happen encourages even more optimism when regarding the financing of the development of the ITS, as he has a track record of putting every last penny of his liquid assets into his projects, up to the last day he expects to be able to fund them (evidenced by Tesla and SpaceX). He is now worth upwards of $10 billion and could undoubtedly fund the development of the ITS himself, in the unlikelihood of interested third-party investors.
I was lucky enough to experience this extraordinary keynote in person, and even luckier to have had my group recognized by SpaceX and the congress organizers and been given reserved seating near the front row, alongside heads of state, agencies, and commercial aerospace behemoths, not to mention astronautical celebrities like Buzz Aldrin. I was also able to attend dozens of other technical talks, many focused on current robotic exploration of Mars, as well as research into closed habitats intended to allow humans to live comfortably away from Earth while also producing a large percentage of the food they would need. The researcher presenting on habitats also revealed that SpaceX had already approached his group and another.
All told, the 2016 International Astronautical Congress offered a cautiously optimistic view of the future of spaceflight. Elon Musk ended his keynote on the ITS by emphasizing that SpaceX wanted to encourage other companies to begin developing the systems necessary for humans to comfortably journey to and thrive on Mars. SpaceX has no interest in creating a monopoly, the company’s singular desire is to more effectively ensure the survival of humanity, and as Musk said himself, to encourage people to do things that make them excited to get out of bed in the morning. More than ever before, I am nearly certain that I will find my way to Mars well within my lifetime, and I have never been more thrilled to be alive.
“Constellation Program Lessons Learned.” 2016. Accessed August 29. http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20110015803.pdf.
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