SpaceX Moves a Step Closer to a Manned Mission
The launch of the “Model 3” must have failed to elicit Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) CEO Elon Musk’s best rendition of enthusiasm. The famously impassive, detached Musk said that his other company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or simply SpaceX, would carry an inflatable space habitat designed by Bigelow Aerospace on its next mission. Robert Bigelow, a former hotel magnate (he owned Budget Suites of America), founded Bigelow Aerospace in 1998.
On April 8, if conditions are right, SpaceX’s “Falcon 9” rocket will transport the “BEAM” from Cape Canaveral. The module will be folded for the launch and then inflated once it is properly connected to one of the nodal points of the station, essentially adding a new section to the International Space Station (ISS). (Source: “SpaceX targets Friday launch of Falcon 9 rocket to space station,” ClickOrlando.com, April 3, 2016.)
When fully inflated, the BEAM module will be 10 times larger than at launch. Inflatable modules are an attractive option for space habitats, given their limited mass and volume at the time of launch. This is why it is easier to install them in a launch vehicle and even cheaper to run, creating a real business opportunity for SpaceX and the new private space exploration companies vying for NASA contracts.
The concept of inflatable space habitats is not new; it goes back to the early 1960s. NASA’s first communications satellite, “Echo 1,” was based on the concept of an inflatable balloon. However, the technology did not go much further, given the focus on manned missions. NASA deemed these too risky to rely on materials such as mere rubber.
In recent years, new materials have reversed this situation. Bigelow Aerospace developed largely through the notion that space tourists would be interested in checking into veritable space hotels orbiting the Earth. The company has successfully launched its first automated modules, “Genesis 1” and “Genesis 2,” in 2006 and 2007. Both are still in orbit today.
But Bigelow Aerospace jumped the line. Its space hotel idea got too ahead of itself. There simply weren’t enough launch vehicles around to make this happen. Now, SpaceX is one of the companies rapidly filling the gap. Indeed, SpaceX should launch a manned mission in 2017. (Source: “SpaceX Gets Huge Contract for its First Manned Space Flight,” Fortune, November 20, 2015.)
SpaceX is one of the leaders of the new space race. The company’s aim to cut overall mission costs has literally launched a space price war. SpaceX has become one of the top players in the world in the space business as the U.S. has become ever less reliant on Russian-made rocket engines. (Source: “Space Price War between Russia & SpaceX – Salt Lake City Tech Part,” Albany Daily Star, last accessed April 5, 2016.)
SpaceX publishes the price it charges for a rocket launch on its web site: $61.2 million for a simple Falcon 9 launch, $90.0 million for a ride on the new “Falcon Heavy.” Compare that to United Launch Alliance’s $225 million per launch. (Source: “SpaceX’s Reusable Rockets Could Cut Launch Prices 30 Percent,” Popular Science, April 1, 2016.)
SpaceX has had some accidents along the way, but the explosion of one of its Falcon 9 rockets minutes after takeoff last June hasn’t discouraged demand. It has a lineup of 70 scheduled launches valued at more than $10.0 billion, according to the company’s web site. (Source: “This Man’s Perfect Launch Record Is No Match for Musk’s Low Cost Rockets,” Bloomberg, March 29, 2016.)
Last year, for the first time, SpaceX managed to land the Falcon 9 first stage on the ground in Florida shortly after launch. However, it has not repeated the feat. It has also never managed to land the first stage of the Falcon 9 on the sea platform after several attempts.
The company must take its risks because the ability to land vertically after a mission—unlike the Space Shuttle, which needed a runway—is a key selling point of its program. But SpaceX had also warned it held little hope of doing this given the constraints of the launch.