SpaceX: Should Elon Musk Give Up on Space Travel?

Space TravelSpaceX CEO Elon Musk Keeps Fighting

Thousands of people tuned in on Sunday, January 17, as Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX, put the “Jason-3” satellite into orbit. However, the core attraction was a little closer to home. Elon Musk was once again aiming to land the “Falcon 9” rocket on a floating platform in the middle of the ocean, a feat that has eluded SpaceX thus far.

This was the company’s third attempt at landing its reusable rockets over water. Due to an awkward landing approach and excessive landing speeds, the rocket exploded the first two times.

Things looked grim for the launch services provider, so the next attempt was then made over land. It worked. SpaceX landed the Falcon 9 rocket on solid ground after putting a satellite into space.

It was a landmark moment in the development of reusable rockets, but water-based landings were still a crucial part of SpaceX’s long-term vision…So they tried one more time on water. The rocket exploded again.

There Goes Another One

Elon Musk wants to make it to Mars. While that may sound ridiculous to the rest of us, he has an actual plan for how to do it. The first stage is getting down the cost of space travel, which basically means we need to stop building a new rocket for every launch.

It costs more than $57.0 million for SpaceX to build a rocket and that’s still far cheaper than how much it costs everybody else. The fuel expense is something like $200,000, so making a rocket last more than one mission dramatically reduces the cost of a launch. (Source: “Is SpaceX Changing the Rocket Equation?Air & Space Magazine, January 2012.)

Elon Musk thinks it’s just common sense. He often appeals to airplanes as an analogy. Imagine if we threw away every “747” after it made a flight from New York to LA; that would be an absurd practice, yet it is standard procedure for rockets.

SpaceX is trying to game the system so it can make Mars a feasible target in our lifetime. But why is it important to have the water-based landings?

To put it simply, the physics demand it. Not all rockets can carry enough fuel to make it back to their launch sites, nor should they have to. The floating platforms, or autonomous spaceport drones, can manoeuvre to meet the rockets out at sea, where an accident wouldn’t pose any harm to a civilian population.

After three explosions, many critics are asking if Elon Musk should either pack his bags or scale back his vision for SpaceX. Leave space exploration to the government, they say. Be happy that you get to ferry cargo (and soon astronauts) up to the space station, they say.

Are they right? Should SpaceX abandon its founder’s dream of high-velocity landings in the middle of the ocean and of one day making it to Mars?

Should Elon Musk Call It a Day?

Forgive my language, but hell no! The biggest advances in space travel came at a time when the U.S. and Russia were engaged in a propaganda war. Both wanted to display ultimate technological superiority, so the space race was born.

However, NASA receded into the background after the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. Congress continually strangled any opportunity for a broad scale impact. They saw no value in space exploration, which is why Elon Musk saw a chance for disruption.

SpaceX is cash flow positive. It has $5.0 billion worth of missions booked on its manifest and some of the smartest people in the world working at its facilities. Yes, the explosions made for a lot of bad press, but in the entire history of space travel, exploding rockets are far more common than a reusable one.

Pushing at the boundaries of innovation demands failure. Unfortunately, in the business of space exploration, those failures are both public and horrific to watch. We should all be a little more forgiving about such mistakes and maybe we’ll get to see a SpaceX rocket land on the surface of Mars.