Tesla Motors, Inc. (NASDAQ:TSLA) and PayPal Holdings, Inc. (NASDAQ:PYPL) founder Elon Musk has a bigger ambition than facilitating online payments and making battery powered electric cars; he wants to send a manned rocket to Mars and back through SpaceX, a private company he has set up for this purpose. In order to develop the technology to reach Mars, however, SpaceX is developing rockets to deploy satellites into space, which can be a lucrative business when the technology is efficient and reliable.
SpaceX’s record of success has been less-than-stellar, to put it bluntly. Space X’s Falcon 9R, which is the rocket the company intends to use to launch the Dragon CRS-7 to the International Space Station (ISS), exploded two minutes after launch last June 28th. While it is still premature to make a (serious) discussion of the causes, SpaceX’s path has not been as smooth as Elon Musk has been smug.
Will Elon Musk Eat Some Humble Pie?
Elon Musk may be forced to eat some of his own words. The first is a long series of paragraphs, from the viability of Europe’s space program to whether fuel cells will be the alternative power source of choice for automobiles. Musk famously ditched the European space program, citing its tremendous costs, even if the Ariane series has proven to be reliable and effective. (Source: “SpaceX CEO Elon Musk: Europe’s rocket ‘has no chance’,” BBC News, November 19, 2012.)
Now, Europe is getting even closer to achieving a reliable and cost-effective means of deploying satellites and other equipment onto orbit thanks to the Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine, also known as SABRE, conceived and now being developed by Reaction Engines. Reaction Engines have achieved remarkable results in 35 years of research with minimal government financial support. Their SABRE and Skylon projects could be the real technologies to revolutionize space travel rather than SpaceX.
Now it is possible to invest in this technology as the giant defense contractor BAE Systems plc (NASDAQ:BAESY), now trading at yearly high levels, has signed a major partnership deal with the privately held Reaction Engines. SpaceX was not betting on this.
The SABRE engine developed by Reaction Engines is a hypersonic precooled engine designed to earn SIXTH (single-stage-to-orbit) capacity, for a prototype reusable aircraft known as Skylon, a potential next generation space shuttle.
The project provides a combined cycle rocket engine with two modes of operation. The jet engine mode uses an air-compressor with a precooled jet engine positioned downstream of the dynamic air intake. At high speeds, the air is fed through a heat exchanger which lowers the temperature to -150 degrees Celsius in fractions of a second. The air is then further compressed by the compressor and then fed into the combustion chamber where it is mixed with the hot hydrogen.
The pre-cooling allows the engine to continue to provide a strong boost to quotas and high speed. The low temperatures guaranteed by heat exchange with liquid hydrogen allow the use of light alloys in the construction of the engine, something not possible in the ramjet, thus allowing for a much lighter engine that can get to orbit faster and easier.
In space, the engine operates as a closed loop rocket motor burning oxygen and liquid hydrogen stowed on board, such that Skylon, the prototype spaceplane, can reach orbit after leaving the atmosphere and return to earth. A SABRE-derived engine known as Scimitar was designed for hypersonic jet transport on behalf of the European Union.
Skylon, thanks to BAE investment and backing, has the chance to become the first true space plane that can take off from an airport, fly into space, and then safely return to the atmosphere and land on the same tarmac where it took off. From there, the path to further space exploration can be achieved. For the time being, SpaceX has not yet been able to produce an effective disposable rocket.
This incident, together with the loss of the Progress rocket last April and Cygnus in 2014, are likely to cause some logistics problems for the ISS. Had SpaceX’s launch been successful, it would have marked a significant milestone for the future of space travel. However, this is not yet the case. Despite SpaceX’s reassurances, there is evidence the company may need to make significant changes or abandon ship.
Besides, SpaceX has also started to confront some more traditional company problems: those involving human resources and dissatisfaction. A former employee is suing the company, claiming it has failed to pay overtime wages, restricting breaks and forcing him (and others) to trim hours on time cards. If proven, it would show SpaceX, a 21st century company, has Industrial Revolution-era employee policies, not even allowing legally required breaks. (Source: “SpaceX sued, accused of failing to pay employee wages,” UPI, Oct. 28, 2015.)
The lawsuit could shed more light on some of the secretive company, further dimming its sheen. However, those are mere asteroid fragments in the face of a bigger problem. The company’s main technological target is to make a reusable rocket; one that is affordable and able to avert the need to throw away the currently-used disposable rockets that cost well over $50.0 million each.
Here’s the Bottom Line on SpaceX
Reaction Engines and BAE are on track to start testing the SABRE engine and related spacecraft by 2019. It may be wise for SpaceX to eat some crow and consider joining BAE in promoting what might be the most practical technology to achieve the future of space travel, whether to the Space Station or far beyond to Mars.