When Tesla founder Elon Musk and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos began testing reusable rockets, few understood the significance of what they were trying to achieve. Now that Musk's company SpaceX is routinely re-launching used Falcon 9 boosters — not to mention the Falcon Heavy, which launched Feb. 6 with three times the payload of the space shuttle — the feat seems practically mundane. It's the new normal.
But these launches are nothing short of extraordinary. The rise of reusable rockets is a revolution on par with the invention of the sail or the steam engine: It will change everything.
The advent of reusable rockets promises to drastically reduce the cost — and, in turn, increase the prevalence — of space travel. Most of the cost of a rocket launch is in its first stage. Before SpaceX pioneered reuse, each space flight required the construction of a new rocket, hardly the most cost-effective model. Think of air travel. If airlines had to build a new plane for each flight, the price of a one-way ticket would be around $500,000 dollars. Firing off NASA's standard Atlas V launch system, likewise, costs up to $150 million each time.
Since the dawn of the Space Age, the cost of a rocket launch hasn't changed much, largely because the design of the rockets themselves has stayed more or less the same. Most of the world's boosters, including those provided to NASA by United Launch Alliance — a joint venture between U.S. aerospace firms Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. — are iterations of designs first introduced in the 1960s. SpaceX broke that mold, building and flying the first entirely new rocket design in half a century. Within a decade of the company's founding in 2002, SpaceX was flying rockets to deliver cargo to the International Space Station at half the cost of an Atlas V launch.
The cost savings possible with reusability will dwarf even that. After only a few launches, the reusable variant of the Falcon 9 has substantially reduced SpaceX's cost per launch. The company believes that once it has worked out the kinks and assembled an adequately large fleet of reusable craft, it may be able to further lower the price of a launch to as little as $700,000. That means that in 10 years' time, private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, Bezos' firm, may be able to stage 214 launches for the price of a single NASA launch today. In terms of transporting goods, reusable rockets offer about the same advantages over their expendable counterparts that freight trains had over wagon trains or that container ships had over clipper ships. And like those earlier innovations, reusable rockets will open up a world of new possibilities.
NASA's Arrested Development
Private upstarts propose to do in the span of two decades what aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin couldn't do for NASA in the better part of six. True, the technology behind reusable rockets is formidable. But so was the technology required to go to the moon. NASA and United Launch Alliance, moreover, have virtually unlimited resources compared with SpaceX; the $1 billion sum that Musk's company has spent to develop and implement reusable technology comes to roughly 5 percent of NASA's budget for a single year. The problem may be that money doesn't necessarily buy innovation — or, more precisely, that innovation is something the government doesn't want to pay for.
The money lost isn't the real issue; it's the lost opportunity.
Regardless of one's views on the role of government, the fact is that government can't help but interact with the private sector. Well-structured contracts with private companies are necessary even from a conservative standpoint to provide the government vital goods and services that it would otherwise have to furnish itself. This system is more efficient and more conducive to competition and innovation than nationalizing entire industries would be, and it can help jump-start nascent industries. SpaceX, in fact, has benefited from government partnerships through initiatives such as the Commercial Orbit Transportation Services and Commercial Resupply Services programs.
Even limited government deals inevitably pick winners among private companies, though, sometimes with unfortunate results. For decades, United Launch Alliance and its component companies were the winners in the aerospace industry because they charged the price Congress dictated for only the services Congress requested. The U.S. government needed look no further to supply NASA. Some may call this model "crony capitalism," but by any name, it was a freezing of the status quo at the cost of innovation. The government was interested solely in getting the job at hand done and had no interest in paying for anything more than slight improvements on tried-and-true technology. When Boeing and Lockheed Martin tried to innovate, the government rebuffed their efforts. Existing systems have powerful political constituencies behind them. Research and development, on the other hand, has neither a clear constituency nor an obvious payoff — and it's an expensive endeavor to boot.
A Half-Century of Missed Opportunities
Imagine that after the Apollo missions, NASA and its contractors had focused on true reusability instead of the enormously costly Space Shuttle program in the 1970s. Imagine they'd used the comparatively vast sea of funding at their disposal to build the fleet of reusable rockets necessary to achieve Musk's goal of a $700,000 launch, starting (for argument's sake) in 1981 — the year the first space shuttle launched. If we assume an average of 20 launches each year from 1981-2017 at a cost of $700,000 each time, we get a total expense of $504 million on launches. At the Atlas V's rate of $150 million per launch, however, the total cost is $108 billion. That's a difference of $107.5 billion — an amount of money that could have bought 1,100 F-35 fighter jets, 40 nuclear submarines or 28 World Trade Centers. The money lost isn't the real issue, though; it's the lost opportunity.
When pioneers crossed the United States in their Conestoga wagons, they called the most fertile lands of the Great Plains the "Great American Desert." The land was largely unusable with the technology available at the time. It took the transcontinental railroad to settle what became the breadbasket of the United States, to feed the country's growing cities, to tap the North American continent's vast mineral wealth, to unite the nation from sea to shining sea. Starting from a handful of settlements hugging the East Coast, cheap rail and steamboat transportation spawned an era of opportunity and technological advances like nothing the world had ever seen.
All that happened in about the same time we've squandered since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik.
It rarely occurs to government actuaries that research and development might yield orders of magnitude in cost improvements and a world of transformative new capabilities. Those are the calculations of entrepreneurs, not of bureaucrats. Like Bill Boeing and Howard Hughes before them, Musk and Bezos have gambled their personal fortunes on the future, pursuing the advances that the state has eschewed. It's an entrepreneurial bet no government actuary can be reasonably expected to make, but it's the biggest reason SpaceX and Blue Origin are achieving such dramatically different results. The passion to create a bolder future, combined with the existential need to cut costs, is why these private companies are running circles around the world's space agencies. It's also why the real Space Age is beginning half a century late.
Air Travel for the 21st Century
What will the new Space Age look like? The last 100 years of economic, geopolitical and social change stemming from the development of air travel are likely to serve as an excellent analogy for the next several decades.
In the early years of commercial air travel, only the wealthy could afford to fly on a propeller-driven Pan Am clipper. But as technology improved, costs dropped and usage increased. Jets became the busses of the sky, wiping out passenger rail and ocean liners as viable business models and gaining ground in the freight market, too. Speed conquers distance. The result is the intricately interconnected world we live in today.
The passion to create a bolder future, combined with the existential need to cut costs, is why these private companies are running circles around the world's space agencies.
SpaceX's planned reusable rockets promise to increase that interconnection. The BFR, or Big Falcon Rocket, is designed to carry 200 passengers and their belongings back and forth between Earth and Mars, as part of the plan Musk revealed last year to reach the red planet within a decade. It has the capacity to transport about 150 metric tons to low Earth orbit — nearly 40 metric tons more than the Boeing 747-400 jet can haul and a whopping 127 metric tons more than the space shuttle could carry. At the right price, the BFR has enough capacity to make interplanetary commerce possible.
In the meantime, reusable rockets could change terrestrial travel as we know it. At the International Aeronautical Congress in September 2017, Musk announced Earth-to-Earth rocket service that could offer roughly 30-minute flights between most any two cities on the planet. The flight from New York to London, for instance, would be 29 minutes, while a trip from New York to Shanghai would take 39 minutes. To comply with noise ordinances, launch and landing operations would probably take place outside the cities. It's no coincidence that SpaceX has put so much effort into landing its boosters on drone ships at sea, even though onshore landings are much cheaper.
SpaceX's proposed Earth-to-Earth service would be transformative, and its growing use would help reduce cost and improve reliability in the by-now-familiar manner of Silicon Valley. Apart from the implications for commercial travel, the ability to cheaply and routinely lift and return immense payloads would revolutionize geopolitics. The BFR has the capacity to lift about 27 metric tons more than the U.S. Air Force's largest strategic airlift plane, the Lockheed Martin C-5B. Just 20 BFRs making five round trips each could deploy 20,000 fully equipped troops anywhere on Earth in a day — or 4,000 in a half hour.
Space Is the Place
Still, the real prize is access to space. No U.S. leader for the past 60 years has managed to understand or convey that space is a place, one filled with far more resources than our planet contains. The abundance is close enough to alter the way we live. Once tapped, it would surely cause a manifold reduction in the price of most commodities and, as a result, a manifold increase in global living standards — not to mention the Earth's environmental quality. The geopolitical ramifications of such a development would be huge. China's near-monopoly on rare earth minerals, for example, would be gone practically overnight, along with the materials' high price.
And that's just the beginning.
Christopher Columbus used a similar argument to persuade the Spanish monarchs — his equivalent of venture capitalists — to back his quest for a new route to India. He understood that an innovative approach to a cost-prohibitive problem could flood the country with wealth and loosen historical geopolitical constraints. Other intrepid souls like Daniel Boone and the founders of the Central and Union Pacific railroads had the same insight. Their examples offer an important lesson today.
Access to space will drive demand not only to go there but also to build fortunes there. Those fortunes, in turn, will radically change how we live here on Earth. Like Robert Fulton's steamboat or the Wright Flyer before it, the reusable Falcon 9 rocket stands to alter the course of human history. The transformation will take some time to play out, but it will be no less revolutionary for that. We are witnessing the dawn of humanity's real Space Age.