By Matthew Alvarez
A couple of years ago you would of thought that the possibility of colonizing another planet was pure science-fiction, and you would equally think anybody wanting to attempt it was just crazy.
Like so many other scientific fantasies before it, that possibility is no longer a possibility, but an actual goal that is being made possible through the fact that we’re on the verge of a complete transformation of the space flight industry.
This revolution is being led by SpaceX, who are in turn led by the same guy that is trying to save our planet down here through Tesla, Elon Musk (here is a link to my article on that subject).
The world may seem like it’s plagued by enough problems to have to worry about another space race across our solar system, and ironically enough, that’s the exact reason why SpaceX wants to get us all the way to our red neighbor.
Prior to starting SpaceX, Musk had different aspirations, wanting to use current in-market rockets to start a Martian bio-experiment with plants.
After several visits to Moscow and with various rocket companies, Musk felt that the price to launch things into Space was too expensive, so he decided he would instead start a rocket launching company from scratch.
He read and memorized everything he could on the subject matter and recruited rocket specialists to start re-envisioning what a rocket is.
Most rockets in use today are based off of cold-war era technology, or worse, were built during the cold-war era.
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To revolutionize space travel, SpaceX needed to make more efficient rockets to reach their first goal: Launch a rocket successfully into orbit at efficiently lower costs. After 3 failed attempts and on the verge of bankruptcy, on September 28, 2008, SpaceX would finally launch their first rocket model, Falcon 1, successfully into orbit, and land a 1.6 billion dollar contract with NASA.
Today SpaceX uses the Falcon 9, the name coming from their signature merlin engines, in which Falcon 9 has nine of. It’s one of the most advanced rocket systems on the planet, and is joined by the development of their dragon spacecraft and Falcon Heavy rocket system.
With the Falcon 9, SpaceX would become the first private company to dock with the International Space Station, send a satellite into orbit, and recover a launched space flight vehicle.
Space X has come a long way, but it’s most important accomplishments to date have only recently happened, creating new optimism across the entire scientific community.
Their current goal is to master re-using first stage rockets, which means getting launched rockets in orbit back to the ground in repairable condition, and favorably, in one piece.
Out of the last seven attempts, SpaceX has managed to successfully recover the Falcon 9 three times. After two failed landings on an autonomous barge in the ocean, history was made when Falcon9 landed back in Cape Canaveral, making SpaceX the first entity to land a rocket on the ground from orbit.
However, this was not SpaceX’s ultimate goal for reusability.
Ground landings cost more fuel, and often leave the rocket in worse condition than preferably landing in the ocean, which is more versatile but also more difficult. SpaceX would finally accomplish an ocean landing on April 8, 2016, and once again on May 6, 2016, with more landings planned for most future launches.
The re-usability of rockets is the key to lowering the cost of spaceflight by a considerable factor, being that it costs approximately 60 million dollars to construct each Falcon 9.
It’s important to note that recovering the rockets are currently the secondary mission of any individual launch, the primary objective is delivering the rockets payload successfully. To date, the Falcon 9 has had 24 missions, 22 of which were successful, creating a very impressive track record.
Everything SpaceX is doing now is leading to a culmination that they hope will enable them to reach Mars in the future, their true long term focus.
But SpaceX wants to do a lot more than simply get to Mars, they want to colonize it. All of a sudden this goal turns from a scientific venture, into a political, social, and ethical soup of many variables. We’re talking about human beings permanently living on a different planet within our lifetime. That statement begs the question, why do it?
Why leave Earth to live on an un-inhabited planet that doesn’t naturally support life? The answer is both inspiring and disheartening, but holds merit. With the fear of global warming, active nuclear arsenals, and the possibility of natural world ending events that will eventually happen (whether it be in 10 years or 1000), Elon Musk believes we need to “back up” the human race.
If something should happen to our home planet, we’ll at least have people elsewhere, ready to continue our existence.
This may not make sense to everybody, it might sound like an impossibility, but it is a valid concern held by some of the top minds of the world.
The calculated time it would take to reach Mars with current technology is about 2 years, along with geographic and atmospheric problems such as the Martian air being unbreathable, an average temperature of -63 degrees Celsius (-81.4 degrees F), and gravity 38% of Earth’s.
As you might imagine, colonizing Mars won’t be easy, and will likely take decades to fully realize. At minimum however, the colonization of another planet will still be the biggest scientific event of the last century, and will pave the way for a space faring future. As of now, SpaceX wants to get to the red planet by earliest 2018.
Optimistically, both NASA and SpaceX also want to get humans to Mars sometime in the 2030’s, with SpaceX having plans to unveil the technology to do so by the end of this year.
SpaceX’s progress is incredible and very exciting to watch unfold, but they aren’t the only private company in the business of space travel.
Notably are the current space industry juggernauts, Lockheed and Boeing, along with the repeatedly delayed program of Virgin Galactic. Other come-ups include Orbital Sciences and Blue Origin, both of which have contracts with NASA.
In the coming years, we’re going to be seeing a lot more companies and governments take up the challenge of getting us back to space, and re-igniting the thrill of venturing off world that was lost decades ago.
It’s a safe and certainly exciting bet that SpaceX will be leading the way back into the final frontier, but the ripples of their (hopeful) success will be just as important if we want to become a multi-planetary species.
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Cover Photo Credit: Bill Brooks/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)