Saturday, January 3, 2015

Why Landing a 14-story Building on a Boat Is a Big Deal

On Tuesday morning (Jan 6), the ambitious young company SpaceX is poised to attempt something that has never been done before. They want to take control of a rocket that is already to the edge of space, turn it around and land it back on earth. 

So what? Countless books, movies and TV programs have shown us flying to another planet in our rocketships and descending tail-first to the surface. Didn’t we land on the moon that way more than 45 years ago? Well yes, but the lunar lander was a very small vehicle and we brought it to the moon by piggy-backing on a much larger rocket that we ditched in Earth’s atmosphere.

Other than in fictional stories, we (earthlings) have never launched a rocket large enough to bring stuff to space and brought it back here to land in an upright position. Why? Because it is really, really hard. When the Falcon 9’s main engines are done lifting some badly needed supplies most of the way to the International Space Station, the rocket will be streaking 60 miles above the Atlantic Ocean at a speed of 4,100 MPH. That's where it gets exciting.

The rocket’s second stage will separate, fire up its own engine and continue to the space station. At the same time, engineers will turn the 14-story first stage around (at six times the speed of sound), relight the engines three different times to slow it down and land it on a floating barge the size of a football field. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, describes this as "tricky" – possibly winning the prize for understatement of the decade.

Besides the obvious “why would somebody try to land a rocket on a floating platform?”, a bigger question is “why is this a big deal?” The first answer is the crazy notion of us actually traveling to another planet. In order to get astronauts and their gear to Mars, we need to be able to successfully land on the surface. The Martian atmosphere is so thin that parachutes or space planes (like the Space Shuttle) are impractical. I suppose we could fly a rocket-propelled sky crane to the red planet and gently lower our supplies to the surface --
as if that would ever work -- but more likely, we would just land using the same rocket technology that got us there.

While the thought of humans on Mars is intriguing, how does this help a commercial space company? If SpaceX can indeed create a reusable rocket, the cost of launching humans and equipment into space will come down significantly. Musk thinks it may lead to a 100-fold decrease in costs, which seems a little far-fetched, but even a 10-fold decrease is a game changer. Not many folks can afford a $200,000 Bentley, but a lot of folks can buy a $20,000 Chevy.

The Russians want to charge $70 million per seat for a ride to the “International” Space Station, but how many countries, including ours, can really afford that? What if SpaceX can do it for $7 million or launch a satellite into low earth orbit for $5 million – or even $1 million. Does Sweden or South Africa or Chile have their own space program? The answer may quickly change from No to Not Yet.

What types of new inventions or discoveries will we see if every Fortune 1000 company, and many even smaller, can afford access to space? Worldwide wireless internet? Storm and disease mitigation? New metals, fabrics and computers? The possibilities are as endless as, well, space.

Of course, the chances are pretty slim that SpaceX will land the Falcon 9 successfully on the first try. As the folks at Orbital Sciences found out, there is a chance it won’t even leave the launch site. So, January 6, 2015 may not make it to the same league as
April 12, 1961 or July 21, 1969, but we could still be witnessing history. The year 2015 could mark the begging of a new, affordable era in space exploration. 

And, that's the big deal.


Also see: My Favorite NASA Video -- so far

1 comment:

  1. Another great Post!!

    Years from now when my kids are older and are reading about this event in their history books, I’m going to refer them to this blog post. Not only is this post informative, but it also captures the insight into the minds of Americans during this historic time period.

    Don’t stop writing, this blog is awesome!!