Space is rather inimical towards human life and if there’s one thing we like it’s probably survival. Expand this to two things and they are survival and comfort. This explains why all but six of us seven billion humans live right here on Earth. Expand our likes to three however... and they become survival, comfort and of course money; which is why humanity is about to make a quiet but very different and significant venture into the black.
A note to the interested then: just before midnight AEST on May 7th (the year of our lord 2012) the SpaceX company will make the first truly commercial launch and recovery of a space vehicle. The 330 tonne ‘Falcon 9’ rocket lifting off the pad along with its Dragon re-entry capsule will have all been designed, built and operated by this private company. The vehicle will be doing a job for NASA, but the entire thing is run by SpaceX in a first attempt at doing what companies do – making money (at an altitude of around 1.3 million feet). This is of real significance because, as the (admittedly not watertight) logic above illustrates, we aren’t going anywhere that far for comfort or survival and yet in the biggest of big pictures we probably do need to go there to survive at all. Such a long, sustained and expensive effort as humanity will need to venture towards space and make it comfortable or at least properly survivable and exploitable, simply cannot be attained by the politics, goodwill and stargazing which surrendered to the immense financial costs in the 1970s. That much has been proven by humankind's shrinking reach since then.
SpaceX is part of an alternative and cheaper model, a part that has nonetheless still turned a profit for the last half decade. As with many of the myriad start-ups that form this new, aggressively progressive model they didn’t exist ten years ago– this entire movement is new. For their part, SpaceX had incredibly humble beginnings – founder Elon Musk (of Paypal and Tesla Motors fame) originally intended to buy a Russian nuclear missile and refit it to land a tiny greenhouse on Mars to inspire people. On learning the huge cost, he decided to ‘build his own’ in 2002. Now SpaceX is midway through designing Falcon 9’s successor ‘Falcon Heavy’, the most powerful rocket to operate since the 70s and has concrete plans to land a human on Mars within two decades. As a private concern with these kinds of goals they’re also hardly on their own - these are the largest players:
- Orbital Sciences Corporation is competing directly with SpaceX with its own Anteres rocket and Cygnus space capsule. It is likewise designing a Heavy Lift launcher to compete to Falcon Heavy and has an existing and successful airliner launched rocket for smaller satellites (Pegasus).
- Bigelow Aerospace is the pioneer of ‘inflatable space stations’. No really (I understand your doubts), they’re allegedly just as tough as traditional designs and a hell of a lot more efficient to pack into rockets. Its first Mir sized structure, BA 330, is scheduled to orbit (via SpaceX) around 2015.
- Possibly even more ambitious than the others is Planetary Resources Inc. Bankrolled by an impressive three Google magnates, the creator of Microsoft Office, Director James Cameron and Ross Perot Jr – this outfit plans to map, then mine asteroids for rare or precious metals and fuel resources and finally to build orbital refuelling depots.
- Less ambitious is Blue Origin (owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos), Lynx Aerospace and Armadillo Aerospace (the latter headed by John Carmack of iD) who are set to compete with the well known Virgin Galactic (owned by beard-enthusiast Richard Branson) for sub-orbital leisure flights and the launch of small payloads into space.
- Reaction Engines Ltd of the UK are the wildest card there is out there. An outfit formed out of frustration at government and corporate handwringing, they aim to have a preproduction prototype of their Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) Skylon space plane flying well before the end of the decade.
Moving back to the more present ‘next month’ timeframe, the SpaceX Dragon capsule will deliver a 1500 kg cargo load to the six residents of the International Space Station and scoot back Earthside. This is genesis as far as the private spaceflight movement goes – the very first ‘profitable cargo run’ that forms the trope of so many science fiction works. Dragon’s designs extend much further than genesis though; as a multipurpose piece of engineering the capsule is also quite capable of delivering seven people to and from the space station (at about a fifth of the cost of the space shuttle) and is in fact designed to be able to land on Mars. Surprising as it may be, Mars is both a fundamental part of their ambition and still nowhere near the end of it.
“[We were] founded with the goal of helping make the human race a multi-planetary species. We remain firmly committed to this goal and will do everything within our power to help make this happen.” – SpaceX Website
These kinds of plans have been around for decades now and generally when they’re announced with their half-trillion dollar pricetags (a hundred times SpaceX’s plan for a manned Mars mission) they’re rightly met with scepticism. This is a different scenario however: the launch of Dragon to the ISS is the first glass-ceiling shattering moment of an uncynical grassroots movement who have sensed opportunity. They intend to make profit out of advancing our civilisation’s reach into the ether; on its own a successful launch come May 7th would leave space freer and cheaper to access for satellites and interplanetary probes than ever before.
A constant here is just how... well geek-heavy the movement is, between the Google founders, SpaceX’s PayPal founder, John Carmack and others. It’s also a potential criticism – that the geeks bought up on sci-fi are trying to make real their childhood fantasies. This may well be true and overconfidence in a ‘manifest destiny’ may eventually become an issue. For now though, they are not only attracting a lot of traditional funding and talent but are simply doing space more successfully and more cheaply than governments. It is probably a happy coincidence for humanity then that they are also much, much more ambitious.
Atomic will keep its ears to the ground and eyes longingly skyward for this groundbreaking launch.