SpaceX To Develop Fully Reusable Rocket, Make Humanity a Multi-Planet Species

SpaceX To Develop Fully Reusable Rocket, Make Humanity a Multi-Planet Species

During a speech at the National Press Club today, SpaceX founder, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Technology Officer Elon Musk made what he called an “exciting” announcement – SpaceX will develop a fully reusable space transportation system.

Perhaps more exciting, and a bit surprising in that venue, was his extended discussion of why humanity should become a multi-planet species. Since Mars is the closest comparatively habitable planet, that’s where he wants to send people.

But the first step is lowering the cost of launch, and that means reusable rockets, he said. In an animation posted on the SpaceX website (click on the illustration), both stages of the two-stage rocket return to Earth and make a soft landing after completing their tasks of delivering the Dragon capsule to orbit. Dragon is shown docking with the International Space Station (ISS), then undocks and returns to Earth also making a soft landing (similar to how Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft lands).

His passion, though, is clearly what he believes low cost launch will enable – “a self sustaining human population” on Mars. He stressed that to him a “little base” of people is “not interesting.” He wants large numbers of people to move there permanently. He views it as “life insurance” for our species in the event of a human-made or natural catastrophe.

How much should be spent on this kind of life insurance, he asked? About one quarter of one percent of GDP is about right in his view.

As for those who want to move to Mars, Musk suggested a ticket price of $500,000 per person. By the time such a possibility is available, he forecast there would be 8 billion people on the planet (there are almost 7 billion now) and if only “one in a million” could afford the price and wanted to go, that would be 8,000 people right there.

After a speech that focused on the long-term future, Musk replied to questions that were mostly about the near-term. He expressed gratitude to NASA, saying that SpaceX would not be where it is today without the agency’s support. The Air Force was another matter. Saying he was surprised the Air Force did not have more interest in SpaceX, he lamented the fact that the Air Force plans to extend its contract with the Boeing-Lockheed Martin United Launch Alliance until 2018 because of concerns about preserving the industrial base. “For some reason we’re not included in the industrial base,” he asserted, even though SpaceX rockets are American-made while the Atlas 5 uses Russian rocket engines and other non-U.S. hardware.

As for the schedule of upcoming launches to the ISS, he said that the next Falcon 9 flight might be delayed to January because of the rescheduling necessitated by the failure of Russia’s Soyuz launch vehicle last month.

In response to a question of just how quickly Falcon 9 and Dragon could be put into service to take crews to ISS, Musk said they could do so on the next flight if the safety requirements were the same as those for the space shuttle. The shuttle did not have an escape system for the crew during ascent, and neither does Dragon at the moment. SpaceX is developing such a system however – NASA and SpaceX agree that should be a requirement. He said it would take two or three years for SpaceX to design and certify the system, which he described as innovative because the thrusters will be on the sidewall of the capsule and thus could be used for a soft landing on Earth as well.

China was also a topic of conversation. No mention was made of China’s successful launch of its first experimental space station module this morning. Instead, Musk responded to a question about who are his main competitors. China, he said, adding that it is difficult to compete with a government that subsidizes its industry, “but we think we’ll win.”

Editor’s Note: the adjective “toe tapping” with reference to the animation was deleted after reflection.

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