Launching A New Space Age

Did you see it?

If you already follow this blog then you were probably watching and cheering with me.

Yes, a billionaire really did just launch his car into space.

Why?

Well, it was the test launch of a first-of-its-kind vehicle loaded to the gills with highly explosive propellant…with a fairly high possibility of something going wrong, blowing its payload into a gazillion very small pieces and delivering it to the mid-atlantic as burning rain. That is why this kind of test flight carries “ballast”…water or concrete or something…to simulate the weight of somebody’s expensive spacecraft. Elon Musk, owner and founder of SpaceX, said he thought that would be boring and boring companies fail. So they didn’t just attach a dummy load to the rocket…they loaded a dummy!

The Falcon Heavy, as a heavy-lift rocket, can send things to other planets in our solar system. SpaceX wants that market and needed to demonstrate that ability as part of this launch.

SpaceX, later this year, will also begin launching NASA crew to the International Space station aboard their Dragon 2 spacecraft using the Falcon 9 rocket. As part of this, they’ve designed a special space suit for the crew to wear. The Dragon can not only be used to carry people to the ISS, but to any other space station that someone might build someday (soon). It is even scheduled to take the Falcon Heavy, with some paying human customers, on a joy-ride out to the Moon and back sometime in 2019 or 2020

SpaceX was founded on the goal of someday sending folks to Mars. In fact, the new launch industry that is being led by SpaceX, called New Space, is all about empowering the people to set the pace of space exploration because governments tend to spend too much money and drag their feet getting anywhere. NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), is the most current example if that. It has been under development since early in the Obama administration (much longer than that if you consider it an extension of NASA’s previous paper-rocket project “Constellation”). It has cost many billions of dollars so far, and will cost half a billion per launch once it flies. Falcon Heavy was privately funded at just just over a half billion dollars to develop and just 90 million per shot to fly. SpaceX’s low prices for the single core Falcon 9 has set the target price of space launches around the world and put SpaceX at the head of the pack in launch frequency because it empowers entrepreneurs to find profitable business ventures in space. They’ve also pioneered the landing, recovery, and reuse of orbital-class rockets. Still, this whole change has been a tempest in a tea kettle for several years now, with very few of the common folk even aware of it.

Lastly, Tesla, where Elon serves as CEO, has a new model of their roadster coming out that is now available for pre-order. The 2008 model is based on parts from Lotus that are no longer available for Tesla to purchase, so that line had to be discontinued before it could really become the thing that it deserved to be.

So…

  1. Take Elon Musk’s 9 year old Tesla.
  2. Take a test dummy and stuff it into one of SpaceX’s new Commercial Crew space suits and name the dummy “Starman”.
  3. Buckle Starman into the driver’s seat with one hand resting on the car and the other on the steering wheel.
  4. Put a copy of “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” in the glove compartment.
    Set the CD player to play “Space Oddity” by David Bowie.
  5. Modify a Falcon Heavy payload adapter to mount the car at a cool angle and then put THAT inside the Falcon Heavy test rocket’s payload fairing instead of some boring block of concrete.
  6. Launch to low earth orbit with one second stage engine thrust, then restart the engine to place it into a transfer orbit to get ready to leave Earth for good…which also exposes it to the Van Allen Radiation belt for a while. Some classes of commercial satellite launches require the second stage to spend some time in the Van Allen Belt, which is extremely destructive on electronics.
  7. Then, after the second stage of the Falcon shows that it can survive the Belt, relight it one more time and run it dry sending it out to Mars’ orbit.

See what they did there? This was not just a test flight and it was not just a marketing stunt. It had been very skillfully designed, down to the detail, as a demonstrator of both the technology and the future promise of Commercial Space.

I and other space geeks already knew that if it succeeded it would do most of those things. The part that floored us was the media attention that the flight grabbed. As I write this, at 11:27 eastern time, the video from Starman’s earlier live YouTube feed had 5 million views. 5 Million! When I compare that to past space-related events, this number is staggering. There are lots of YouTube videos that get millions of views eventually, but very few get there in just a few hours and I’ve never seen live space events ever get more than 50,000 or so!

Multiple national news media outlets also covered the event from near the start of the launch window at around 2 pm Eastern, clear through the launch holds when they waited for upper-level wind shear to die down to a safe level, until the actual launch at 3:45. They filled that gap with space stuff that kids along the East Coast got to see as they arrived home from school.

Then this huge viewership got to watch the launch itself. Heavy lifters put on an amazing show anyway, and this one was doomed to be a bit of a nail-biter from being that rocket’s first flight and doing several things that SpaceX had never done before and a couple of things that no one has done before. The launch was accompanied by the epic SpaceX staff heralding every dangerous milestone with deafening cheers. The whole thing had the feel of a rock concert.

I myself incorrectly predicted at least one scrubbed launch day that didn’t happen. So many things that could go wrong didn’t. The only blemish was that they crashed the center core when they tried to land it, but the side cores returned together in a synchronized dance and landed back in Florida like they belonged there.

The cat has left the bag. The Falcon Heavy has now made New Space a thing today in the eyes of the masses. Children were seen staring at Starman, eating popcorn as they gazed at the screen. A whole new generation of space geeks were born with that launch, except that this next group will actually get to see all the things that my generation hoped for and never got. The tech now exists and the prices have been dragged down to where folks can get down to business. Many politicians and old school space companies have tried to keep these developments in a bottle, hidden, in order keep space expensive and rare and the initiative under the control of a very few. But that ended on a cold afternoon on February 5th, 2018.

Space isn’t just for NASA, or even scientists, anymore.

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~ by Bill Housley on February 7, 2018.

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