BreakingModern — Late last year, NASA sent up its Orion craft on a Delta IV heavy rocket. It should have been on the front page of every morning newspaper, with video on the television morning news. But space travel tends to get short shrift in today’s world, where we’re no longer battling the Soviets for interplanetary domination and so many other distractions fill our news hole. The Dec. 5 launch was the first of its kind, a successful test flight for a scheduled trip to Mars, with the additional goal of eventually reaching the Martian moon Europa.
But NASA and its band of government contractors, including Lockheed Martin, isn’t the only game in town. A private company, SpaceX, the brainchild of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, is making its own plans to provide a variety of space services — to anyone with money they can burn as fast as rocket fuel.
NASA and SpaceX
Founded in 2002, SpaceX has over 3,000 employees and an ambitious plan to provide both cargo and manned flight. Based in Hawthorne, Calif., the company has launch facilities at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, where Orion was launched, and at Vandenberg Air Force Base, in Lompoc, Calif.
SpaceX also has three space vehicles under development. The Falcon 9, the Falcon Heavy and the Dragon models rival what NASA’s contractors can cook up. For example, specs on the Falcon Heavy show its ability to generate some 801 kN (kiloNewtons) of force. Or, as the company puts it:
“[Falcon Heavy has] the ability to lift into orbit over 53 metric tons (117,000 lb.) — a mass equivalent to a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage and fuel — Falcon Heavy can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy, at one-third the cost.”
Many other details about the development of these cutting-edge machines are kept somewhat under wraps, as SpaceX keeps working on changing the space game by bringing the private sector into something that, until recently, was strictly a government program.
The Philosophy of Private Space Competition
SpaceX leaders have often pointed to the potential for “freeing” space travel from the monopoly of statecraft. In comments at an Atlantic Council presentation last summer, SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell had this to say:
“All this innovation is being done by SpaceX alone, no one is paying us to do it … This is the kind of thing that entrepreneurial investment and new entrants/innovators can do for an industry: fund their own improvements, both in the quality of their programs and the quality of their hardware, and the speed and cadence of their operations.”
Going back a little further to this past March, we also have testimony from Elon Musk to the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, where Musk calls SpaceX “a preferred launch services provider for customers worldwide” and lays out a number of points about how the company has achieved its competitive model.
First, says Musk, NASA is getting seriously overcharged for services. Claiming that SpaceX offers “at least a $280 million per launch difference” for each launch, Musk suggests the company could have saved the America taxpayer over 10 billion dollars to date. Also, Musk said, SpaceX has complied with a lot of government restrictions that are not placed on “the incumbent provider” — with no government assistance.
Musk also points out that, unlike the systems of competitors, all of SpaceX’s equipment is made in the U.S. In his opinion it now makes sense to view a launch as a commodity, freeing the purchaser from the walled gardens of government-subsidized or contracted shops.
Video: SpaceX Falcon 9 Reusable F9R Rocket Steerable Fins Flight Test of 1km 1080p
More About SpaceX
For fans of deep space exploration and related science, these are exciting times, where science fiction is, in many ways, being made into reality. NASA and SpaceX continue to release new and interesting details about their crafts and programs — but if you’re looking to get more active about getting in touch with the private sector side of space travel, contacting SpaceX isn’t like calling up your local ISP. Among the many companies toiling diligently in their respective industries, America’s independent space travel firm isn’t one of the more responsive ones, and unlike many firms, the company doesn’t seem to have an accessible media relations team.
More than 20 calls over a two-week period failed to get any access to anyone who could provide a connection to media or public relations people. We tried. Many of our calls went directly to a company directory with no names or extensions. Emails were also not answered at press time. The only option available to space enthusiasts is to check the company’s website on a frequent basis.
And there’s a lot to read up on, as this company breaks ground in one of the most-fascinating, and least-covered, industries of our time.
For BMod, I’m Justin Stoltzfus.