spacex launch

How SpaceX Plans to Colonize Mars

Space Exploration Technologies, better known as SpaceX, just raised one billion dollars through Google and Fidelity. The pair now own around 10% of the space transport services company with Google hoping the collaboration leads to a global internet.

The company is known for its outrageous mission statements. It was founded in 2002 by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk with the goal of making space transport cheap enough to allow humans to colonize Mars.

For those unfamiliar with Musk – he is the South African born, Canadian-American billionaire behind companies such as Paypal, SolarCity and Tesla Motors and has been described as a mix of Steve Jobs, J.D. Rockefeller and Howard Hughes.  The entrepreneur knows how to think big and SpaceX is arguably his most ambitious project to date.

SpaceX developed the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets and the Dragon spacecraft. The Falcon 1 was the first privately-developed liquid-fueled rocket to successfully reach orbit. The launch on September 28, 2008 came after six years of hard work and three failed launches going back to 2006.

In 2012, they followed up that achievement by becoming the first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station. The Dragon launched on May 25, 2012, bringing a load of cargo to the astronauts on the ISS. As of January 2015, SpaceX has flown five missions to the ISS and launched 13 Falcon 9 rockets with many more launches planned for the future.

falcon 9 rocket

Source: SpaceX.com

Elon Musk has bigger dreams than delivering cargo to the ISS or lining up commercial launches. He wants to get humanity to Mars. In 2011, Musk boasted that he would put a man on Mars by 2021.

To do so, SpaceX will have to use reusable rockets. A basic, traditional rocket might consist of a rocket core, payload, and boosters where much of the apparatus is thrown away each time.

spacex rocket

Currently there is no launch system that allows reuse – at least in a manner similar to the simple reusability of an aircraft. A few are under development, including SpaceX’s reusable rocket launching system – planned for use on the Falcon 9 and upcoming Falcon Heavy rockets.

SpaceX has accomplished a lot in its short history. What really distinguishes the company is that they have succeeded in making the field of space travel more competitive. SpaceX’s low launch prices – especially for sending communication satellites into orbit – have placed a lot of pressure on their competitors. As of September 2014, French aerospace company Arianespace claimed 60% of the global satellite launch market. By November 2014, SpaceX was already taking market share from them.

Competition in the arena of space launches can only be a good thing. Arianespace has been around since 1980 and before that space travel was the domain of nationally funded government organizations. SpaceX has come in as a disrupter; their Falcon 9 rocket being the cheapest in the industry. By late 2013 the published price of a launch to low Earth orbit stood at $57 million.

falcon 9 rocket

 Source: SpaceX.com

The Falcon 9 can bring one pound of material in low Earth orbit for about $2100. The Falcon Heavy rocket is even cheaper, able to send one pound of material to space for around $730. Elon Musk insists that this is just the beginning, saying in testimony to the U.S. senate that he believes” $500 per pound or less is very achievable”.

The journey has not been easy. When Musk went out to buy the first rockets, suppliers strong-armed him with exorbitant prices. The experience prompted him to build the rockets he needed himself. During this time, rocket development and other costs kept climbing and it wasn’t clear that SpaceX would survive. By March 2006 Musk had invested $100 million of his own fortune into the company but three consecutive failed launches of the Falcon 1 rocket between 2006 and 2008 meant that prospective clients were reluctant to sign contracts. The global economic collapse made things even more complicated.

It was in 2008 that Musk decided to open SpaceX up to investors, selling a small piece of the company to Founders Fund – a private equity group. Musk was quoted as saying “it was never my intention to take outside investments but I simply didn’t have the money to put in.”

The latest round of funding from Google and Fidelity coincides with news that NASA has awarded Boeing and SpaceX lucrative contracts to develop and operate “space taxis” capable of ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station. It seems that with nearly 50 launches booked through 2017 – a mix of commercial satellite launches and NASA missions, – SpaceX is sitting pretty, expecting to bring in roughly $5 billion over the next few years.

Spacex chart

Source: Wall Street Journal

The company is red-hot and Google is interested. The Wall Street Journal reports that Google put up the majority of the $1 billion investment, valuing the company at $12 billion. That places it ahead of companies such as Dropbox, Snapchat and Airbnb. According to multiple reports the search giant could soon make another investment into SpaceX, with the goal of supporting the creation of a satellite-based Internet system that could bring internet access to the whole world.

If SpaceX looks to be an all-conquering force it is down to the relentless efforts and sheer strength of will of its founder Elon Musk. A recent study found that it cost SpaceX $440 million to go from drawing board to first Falcon 9 launch. The study goes on to say that is NASA tried to do the same thing it would have cost three times as much. When Musk asked his propulsion chief Tom Mueller how much he thought SpaceX could discount the cost of a rocket engine, Mueller estimated that they could bring it down by a factor of three. Musk said they would do it for a tenth of the cost.

In the end Musk was closer.

SpaceX is pushing the limits of technology and benefits from having a simple plan. They have one vision, three vehicles and an incredibly talented and dedicated workforce.

We might just put a man on Mars yet.

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