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March 5, 2018 | by  | in Opinion Super Science Trends | [ssba]

Ziggy StarMusk and the Roadster to Mars

I can think of no better way to relaunch this column than talking about launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy on February 6th, one of the largest commercial rockets ever launched, and proof of the viability of reusable rockets. Over two million people watched the Youtube livestream as Elon Musk, a true showman, chose to forgo the traditional test launch cargo of a concrete block for one of his Tesla Roadsters.

Was it successful? Not entirely; while the booster rockets returned to Earth unscathed, the main Falcon crashed mere meters from its seaborne landing platform, due to not having enough fuel to reactivate its thrusters for a touchdown landing. To his credit, Musk took it in stride, sharing the scientific attitude of being perfectly willing to anticipate failure, and unlike most modern capitalists, he’s perfectly willing to lose a lot of money in the name of progress. What matters is the car made it to space, and you can now track its location in the solar system through Ben Pearson’s, as well as when it’s expected to hit Mars, and the amount of times it exceeded its 360,000 mile warranty (at my last glance, about 800).

Recently, the US government is increasingly in favour of privatising its space ventures, including ending federal funding for its share of the International Space Station by 2025. The annual NASA budget sits around $20 billion, and due to inflation, this amounts to a gradual pay cut over time. Companies like SpaceX have both a vision and a bottom line to maintain, which encourages them to lower costs. The complete Falcon Heavy rocket package costs around US$90 million, whereas NASA’s current most powerful rocket, the Delta IV, costs US$350 million. SpaceX is also the only space flight endeavour that reuses its rockets, which makes it a less wasteful alternative to one-use multi-stage rockets, which are the equivalent of taking a plane from London to LA but jumping out above your destination while your plane crashes in the ocean. NASA is already eyeing up SpaceX for when a large scale satellite needs launching; while we currently know that it can propel a car, Falcon Heavy is promised to be able to carry around 64 tons.

That said, I wonder when Musk’s ambition will exceed his means. One need look no further than Tesla Motors, which has consistently failed to turn the electric car from a luxury item to a mass market vehicle, and in doubling down to meet his targets he’s only created more stress for his workers. The Verge reported that injury rates at his auto factories are 31 percent higher than the US average for 2015. Musk has also been quietly attempting to suppress a Tesla workers union, while promising to produce 5,000 electric cars a week by 2018. These concerns have since been eclipsed by the success of SpaceX; I almost view the Falcon Heavy launch as a metaphor for his current business plan, using the power of one venture to launch a totem of the other as far away from him as humanly possible.  

Still, when those booster rockets returned to their landing pad in unison, I’ll admit I welled up a little at how they returned to Earth with such careful grace. The Bowie soundtrack probably helped. I wondered what my late grandfather, a Imperial College-educated rocket scientist, would have thought of it, having studied physics at a time when it was thought impossible for a man-made object to leave the Earth’s gravitational pull at all. And at the end of the day, we were witnesses to history being made. Sometimes living in a dystopian cyberpunk present has its moments.


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