Sunday, June 3, 2012

Future of space exploration will fly from Florida

     Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is a young company at the forefront of the next generation in the commercial space industry, with the primary goals over the next three years of maintaining a hefty flight launch manifest of commercial and government launches and eventually sending manned missions into space by early 2015.

     Currently SpaceX has nearly 9,000 employees at their facilities in California, Texas, Washington D.C. and Florida, with expanding construction projects underway at its main launch facility at Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

     “The next rocket for our next mission is already down here in Florida,” said Kirstin Grantham, SpaceX director of corporate communications. SpaceX will continue to hire more employees locally to help maintain its 26 planned launches from Cape Canaveral through 2015, including four launches in 2013, eight in 2014 and 10 in 2015.

     The company was founded in 2002 by CEO Elon Musk who amassed his fortune by co-creating the internet-based financial transaction system PayPal. His primary goal, aside from running a profitable private space company on Earth, is literally out of this world: Building a base on Mars in the not so distant future.

     To get to this point SpaceX first has to develop and test the next level of space technology, and they are getting this guidance from NASA and its program for Commercial Orbital Transport System. The C.O.T.S. program is divided into several key success elements per mission, like “launch to orbit,” “berth with International Space Station (ISS)” and “proper recovery of spacecraft.” SpaceX is awarded financial assistance as they prove success with specific mission goals, which further proves they can handle elements of a manned mission later on.

     SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft successfully docked with the ISS over the weekend, making SpaceX the first private company to accomplish this feat. Only four nation states have docked with the ISS in the past. Astronaut Don Pettit described the interior of Dragon as having a “new car smell,” and when asked live via press conference from inside the capsule if he could imagine flying to the ISS in the Dragon, Pettit said, “It’s roomier than a Soyuz, so flying up in a human-rated Dragon is not gonna be an issue.”

     Russia currently charges the U.S $53 million to fly one astronaut to the ISS and are currently the only ones providing crew transportation into space. SpaceX plans to cut the cost to $20 million per astronaut by providing a 7 member crew a flight in a Dragon spacecraft for $120 million per flight.

     To ensure its continued success the company has to ensure their investors of the potential profits that can be found in the commercial space industry. They are currently at $1.2 billion in expenditures including around $390 million from NASA, $100 million from Musk, $120 million from other investors and $300 million from commercial contracts. Though a lot of money has been spent, SpaceX states that it has been cash flow positive and profitable for the last five years, with the majority of its investment support coming from private companies looking to launch satellites.

     The price to launch a satellite into orbit varies from as low as $53 million for smaller launches, and $80 to $120 million for larger rocket launches. The Falcon Heavy rocket is currently under development and can handle these larger payloads and eventual mission into deep space. The business model for this ever-expanding industry was stated by spokeswoman Graham “If someone can show that they can afford a launch, we will sell to them.”

     Despite all the aggressive plans already in the works for SpaceX, Musk has made it clear in several interviews that his ultimate goal is to build a base on Mars and make life multi-planetary. He foresees sending millions of tons of cargo and building supplies to Mars overtime and eventually building a permanent establishment on the planet that could potently house thousands of people in the future. The rate of progress from private industry and continued government support will help to ensure this enterprising endeavor.

By James Tutten

(Published: May 30, 2012 issue of "Valencia Voice" on page 3.)

(Above photo by James Tutten)


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