- SpaceX, founded by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, is achieving major milestones in 2018.
- The aerospace company launched its 50th Falcon 9 rocket on March 6, and is on track for a record-breaking 30 missions in 2018.
- The pace of SpaceX launches has made them seem less and less remarkable — even boring — but that’s a good thing.
- Routine spaceflight is transforming SpaceX from a startup into its next phase.
Elon Musk seemed very happy after the maiden launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful operational rocket.
But a different expression came over Musk’s face shortly after that launch — and it has stuck with me. In a post-launch press briefing on February 6, Musk leaned forward on his elbows to watch a video recap of the mission. He had a subtle smile and a relaxed expression. He seemed a little bored.
If I had just successfully launched a 230-foot-tall rocket toward space, landed two 16-story, multi-million-dollar boosters back on the ground, sent a car toward Mars, and undercut a major competitor’s costs four-fold all in one go, I would have acted a bit more excited.
Perhaps Musk was tired, or he’d gotten the unabashed celebration out of his system beyond the sight of reporters. Yet his space business — and in particular missions involving Falcon 9 rockets — is likely starting to feel routine for Musk. That may even be true for his thousands of employees.
That shift was especially clear on Tuesday, when SpaceX launched a Spanish satellite called Hispasat 30W-6. The event was the 50th launch of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket, a reusable workhorse launch system that’s the smaller predecessor to Falcon Heavy.
That’s a major milestone for a company that opened an empty office in 2002, filled it with a handful of employees (and a mariachi band) and was nearly bankrupt a few years later.
“Just ten years ago, we couldn’t even reach orbit with little Falcon 1,” Musk tweeted shortly after this week’s launch.
It’s even more remarkable to consider that SpaceX rocket launches will only get more and more routine and boring.
SpaceX has come a long way in 50 launches of Falcon 9
SpaceX wasn’t always the impressive company that it is today. Many insiders found Musk’s effort laughable, especially after SpaceX hit a string of failures from 2006 through 2008, as it attempted to launch Falcon 1 — its first orbital-class system.
“The reason I ended up being the chief engineer or chief designer [at SpaceX] was not because I wanted to, it’s because I couldn’t hire anyone; nobody good would join,” Musk said during a 2017 talk about how he plans to colonize Mars. “It ended up being that by default. I messed up the first three launches, the first three launches failed. Fortunately the fourth launch — that was the last money that we had — the fourth launch worked, or that would have been it for SpaceX. But fate liked us that day.”
With the advent of Falcon 9, a system developed primarily using funding from NASA, Musk eventually made his rocket boosters reusable. His aim: dramatically reducing the cost of sending people and cargo into space, and paving the way to the moon and Mars.
However, Falcon 9 also hit some serious setbacks, as not all of those 50 launches went off without a hitch.
There was the 2012 loss of an Orbcomm satellite, the loss of a resupply ship bound for the International Space Station in 2015, and the 2016 launchpad explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket (which destroyed a satellite Facebook had hoped to use).
There was also an apparent failure in January to deploy the US government’s top-secret “Zuma” satellite. SpaceX is likely to be cleared of blame for the alleged problem, since the company that built Zuma asked to use a non-standard deployment system. (A conspiracy theory also suggests a “failure” was a ruse to hoodwink US adversaries like Russia and China.)
A record-setting year ahead?
As time passes, the rate of SpaceX’s failures has atrophied and its number of successes has skyrocketed.
The company is even gearing up to launch its first NASA astronauts to the space station using Falcon 9, perhaps even by the end of 2018.
Gwynne Shotwell, the president and COO of SpaceX, told Space News in November that the company hopes to launch a record-breaking “30 to 40” missions in 2018. Most of those will be on Falcon 9 rockets — which means a 600-ton rocket would be lifting off once every nine to 12 days. That’s a 66%-122% increase over the company’s launch rate in 2017.
If the feat is achieved, SpaceX’s launch total would eclipse all US orbital-class launches combined in 2017, according to Spaceflight101’s statistics. The company would also do nearly $2.5 billion worth of business, given Falcon 9’s $62-million price tag.
Looking to the Big F–king Rocket
Now that the Falcon Heavy rocket has been shown to work, SpaceX is shifting more resources toward its most ambitious project to date: the Big Falcon Rocket (also called the Big F–king Rocket), which is shown in the animation above.
The 348-foot-tall, fully reusable system is scheduled for an “aspirational” first launch toward Mars in 2022. The enormous spaceship it will carry is slated to roll out of SpaceX’s facilities in McGregor, Texas, and begin hopping around the desert with short test launches sometime in 2019.
In a series of remarks in September 2017, Musk said the BFR will come to replace everything SpaceX has built thus far, since its total reusability means it won’t cost much to launch — the biggest cost would just be the price of fuel.
“We want to have one system, one booster and ship, that replaces Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon,” Musk said of SpaceX’s other rockets. “If we can do that, then all the resources that are used for Falcon 9, Heavy, and Dragon can be applied to this system.”
Musk is just getting started
Over dinner after Falcon Heavy’s launch, a friend made an apt comparison about Musk’s accomplishments thus far: Compared to how long the other players in the spaceflight industry have been around, Musk isn’t even in kindergarten. He’s a pre-schooler.
We are currently witnessing SpaceX evolve from an all-bets-are-off startup into a reliable and increasingly boring transportation company — one that takes cargo and people into the final frontier.
But boring is good in spaceflight. Boring means safe, reliable, and routine. And Falcon 9’s newfound routineness, including the reuse of its boosters, is just the beginning of the new commercial space race.
I look forward to seeing who emerges as the most capable — and boring — aerospace company of them all.