“Governments can develop new technology and do some of the exciting early exploration but in the long run it’s the private sector that finds ways to make profit, finds ways to expand humanity.” — Dr. S. Pete Worden, director at NASA Ames Research Center
OK, I might be a tad late in reporting on this, but for those who haven’t read all about it….
Exactly one month ago (2/19/2017), after dealing with a small leak in the upper-stage helium system and a last-minute, one-day postponement, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket successfully blasted off on a supply mission to the International Space Station. It was a nice comeback moment after the spectacular explosion they suffered last September during a test on launch pad 40.
Some of my regular readers may remember that I wrote last August about SpaceX making deliveries to & from the ISS using their innovative Dragon cargo module. So, you may be asking, what’s the big deal this time?
Well, though they occasionally launch from a site in California, normally SpaceX launches from the aforementioned (and now damaged) Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Kennedy Space Center. This time, however, they launched from the historic pad 39A, from which the Apollo astronauts were sent to the Moon almost 50 years ago. This marks the first time that a commercial vehicle has used Launch Complex 39A.
Prior to this, the last time it was used was when NASA sent up Atlantis for the final shuttle mission on July 8, 2011. Since then, it pretty much lay abandoned until SpaceX was awarded a 20-year lease on the pad back in 2014 and began spending millions to remodel it. The activity has rejuvenated the spirits of many at NASA.
“You definitely get that sense throughout Kennedy. People are so tied to the history here and these pads, it’s like bringing them to life again, and I think everybody is really excited to see that.” — Regina Spellman, Deputy Project Manager, Mobile Launcher Element Integration Team, NASA’s GSDO Program
But, there was another “first” set that morning, too. Nine minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9’s first stage booster flipped around and flew back to Cape Canaveral for landing. After successful nighttime tests, this was the first daylight attempt. The significance of this ability is, of course, that reusable rockets means greatly reduced costs. This in turn means that they can offer their services at much reduced prices.
Who might be the customers for those services? Well, NASA, obviously. But, eventually, you and me. If you read my earlier post, you might recall that I also wrote about another private firm, Moon Express (or MoonEx). This firm has long-term plans to do lunar landings and capitalize on various commercial endeavors envisioned for the Moon. Of course, that is a ways off, so the more short-term target for such firms is “space tourism”. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that, a few days after SpaceX’s above mission success, Founder & CEO Elon Musk announced their plans to put tourists in lunar orbit beginning as soon as 2018.
These trips will use an upgraded Dragon capsule, perched atop a heavy-lift Falcon Heavy rocket, which is planned to debut this year. First, though, there will be modifications for use in manned NASA missions. Once the system has been proven, then the space tourists will get their chance. In fact, they are already lining up! Tickets won’t be cheap, especially not at first. (As of the announcement, two unidentified “private citizens” had each already made “a significant deposit”.) But, in 20 years or so, who knows? I wouldn’t mind a little excursion to the Moon for my 70th birthday!
Of course, SpaceX and MoonEx aren’t the only firms planning trips to the Moon. As for Musk, he’s not stopping there. Check out his vision for Mars! Say what you will about the guy or the viability of his proposals, he ain’t afraid to dream big!