Last week I witnessed – via the wonders of modern technology – live footage of the very first Falcon Heavy rocket launch. Which, while remarkable in itself, was particularly pleasing to me because I thought I’d already missed the launch. When I had a spare moment I looked at Twitter to see how the launch had gone and found out it was actually about to happen, and saw the whole thing from about T-minus 10 seconds. Quite possibly the most magical and thrilling 10 minutes of video footage I’ve ever seen. I sat there, waiting for my daughter to finish a music practice with a massive Cheshire Cat grin on my face. It dawned on me, that not only had I just seen something remarkable, but quite possibly I had just seen one of those rare moments that changed the course of human history for ever.
50 years ago humans were on the way to the moon and the space race offered an optimistic ‘can do’ vision of mankind’s future. But then the Russians dropped out and the Americans lost their enthusiasm, the political will to spend vast sums of money on manned spaceflight dwindled. The situation wasn’t helped by the Space Shuttle. A truly remarkable machine, that ultimately fell short of the promise of cheap reusable space flight. The International Space Station firmly rooted astronauts in low Earth orbit and finally the Shuttle was cancelled for being a funding drain that could no longer be justified. People ask, “It’s been 50 years, why aren’t we on the moon?” The simple answer is that we stopped aiming for it. But things have changed.
Recently, having scrapped the Shuttle, NASA have gone back to an Apollo style rocket launcher with their Orion crew module and Space Launch System, planned to come into service in the next decade. Several private companies including Virgin Galactic and SpaceX have thrown their hats into the ring and China has joined the party. Where once the motivation to conquer space was political this new space race looks like it will be driven by economics. With their daring Falcon Heavy launch, SpaceX have taken an early lead, and with their rockets made up of reusable components they are well placed to drive down the cost of getting into space.
This is the crucial point. Moving anything from the surface of the Earth into even low Earth orbit is incredibly expensive. Even NASAs new SLS launcher looks like its going to cost the thick end of a billion dollars per launch. That’s why the Falcon Heavy launch was so important. Watching the two boosters (already used before) soft land on the launch pads, almost synchronised, autonomously under their own power, put the smile on my face because I knew the game had literally just changed before my eyes. Estimates vary, but it seems likely when SpaceX iron out the kinks, their modular Falcon rocket system will reduce the cost of spaceflight by half, perhaps even slash it to 10% of the current cost. This is a remarkable achievement. Space travel is set to get cheaper, and with falling costs come the promise of commercialisation, tourism and people actually living off world. If space can be made to pay for itself, even generate wealth, then it will open the flood gates and there will be no stopping it. Cheaper access to space is the key and Elon Musk has done it.
This, in my opinion, is critical. Without it, space will always be a vast wilderness that we occasionally throw space probes into, but with it we gain the ability to colonise space. This is important for one reason. Right now; humanity has all its eggs in one basket. All it would take is a rogue comet, a close gamma ray burst or a super volcano going off, or any number of other extreme natural events to wipe all life from the surface of the Earth and humanity with it. It’s almost five years to the day that a small asteroid exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk causing widespread damage and causalities. If nothing else this event serves as a warning, one day it will happen again and next time we might be as unlucky as the dinosaurs. We are the first species on this planet with the capability to foresee such a cataclysm and do something about it. We need to conquer space and we need to colonise other worlds. Anything less would be gross irresponsibility.
Up until last week, any plans to safeguard our future in this way were a distant pipe dream. But now, with this Falcon Heavy launch, SpaceX have opened the door to cheaper space travel. They have pointed the way and others will surely follow. Over the coming decades the costs will fall and access to the final frontier will finally become routine, as the Shuttle promised but failed to deliver.
I watched that Falcon Heavy launch and I smiled because I can see a future where everything is going to be OK.