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Destler Dodge

This past month brought about a symbolic milestone for the private space industry. On Feb. 19, SpaceX launched a Falcon9 rocket to resupply the International Space Station from the Kennedy Space Center's pad 39A in Cape Canaveral — the very same launch site that saw off the Apollo astronauts who set foot on the moon, as well the Space Shuttle flights. It was previously unused since the latter's retirement in July 2011. SpaceX has also just announced that they'll even be launching a privately crewed spacecraft to fly around the moon from 39A in late 2018 — marking the first manned mission to deep space in 45 years.

Such events are emblematic of how far private space ambitions have come in the past twenty years. After all, the most successful private launch company to arise from the 20th century, for instance, made rockets that can be best described as “fireworks.”

So when venture-capitalist Elon Musk decided to start his own rocket company in 2002, (after failing to buy an old Russian ballistic missile) betting on the future of the newly formed SpaceX was not a sure thing.

Slow to Launch

With so many inherent barriers, one might wonder what the rationale is for privatizing space. It’s a tricky question and it’s one that Phil Linden, director of Outreach and Development of RIT’s Space Exploration (SPEX) club and an fifth year Bachelor of Science and Master of Engineering student, has pondered.

“NASA is traditionally very risk-averse and private companies have the ability to push the boundary,” said Linden.

“NASA is traditionally very risk-averse and private companies have the ability to push the boundary,” said Linden. “It’s really a fertile ground for innovation.” Linden himself has been a vehicle engineering intern at SpaceX.

After its founding, SpaceX began its first serious space endeavor with the Falcon 1 rocket. Built with an in-house produced engine — based off of the F1 engine from the iconic Saturn V — the Falcon 1 was very much a first step. If SpaceX’s current workhorse rocket — the Falcon 9 — is their Apollo program, then the Falcon 1 was their Mercury and Gemini.

“The Falcon 1 [was] the first privately funded orbital rocket ever,” noted T.J. Tarazevits, student director of SPEX and a third year Game Design and Development major. “That breaks the entire historical role of government.”

Minor glitches and bugs caused the Falcon 1’s first launch to slip three times before lift off was attempted on March 24, 2006. Linden pointed out that the precarious nature of space calls for such an extra degree of carefulness.

For SpaceX, a successful launch not only meant pleasing investors (as well as having $6.7 million of research and four years of development come to fruition), but demonstrating that a private company could be a serious contender in the space industry.

This first attempt would not exhibit such prowess. The Falcon 1’s engine cut out after reaching orbit, ultimately causing it to crash into the Pacific Ocean. Its second stage never fired and the payload fairing never jettisoned; the satellite never even got a glimpse of space. Tarazevits explained that a change of launch sites resulted in the ultimately fatal corrosion of a specific bolt.

Rockets have exploded before, and SpaceX had plenty of capital left, but its  troubles were far from over. The Falcon 1 would experience two more failures after their first attempt.

None were perhaps more disappointing than the third try, where the second stage rockets released when the first were still thrusting, causing the Falcon 1 to blow to pieces. Had it been released just seconds later, the flight very well could have made it to orbit.

“There was a pressure differential between zero and atmospheric pressure,” said Tarazevits. “That’s not easily detectable on the test stand.”

Truly Taking Off

With SpaceX's three launches in the hole, a fourth flight was looking less like a "ground-breaking achievement" and more like a last ditch effort. By this point Elon Musk himself had invested over $100 million into SpaceX, but the company was still in search of a fully operational rocket. 

SpaceX was in dire need of success by the time a fourth, error-corrected Falcon 1 was sitting on the pad a mere month later on Sept. 28, 2008. This time it flew through Max-Q (the maximum aerodynamic pressure on the rocket), staging, staging and payload separation. It was wholly a very standard, uneventful launch, but that was perhaps the most exciting news possible for SpaceX.

It was easy to tell that the mission had gone well. For one, the cheers of SpaceX's 500+ employees at times drowned out the launch's announcers during its webcast.

“This is just the first step of many,” Elon Musk excitedly commented on the webcast that day.

Onwards and Upwards

After SpaceX’s initial success, the private space industry experienced what could only be described as a revolution.

Lessons learned from the Falcon 1 helped SpaceX develop the Falcon 9, a platform that would later be the first to successfully pilot its first stage rocket back to earth. The Falcon 9's creation would in turn facilitate the production of the pressurized Dragon space capsule. Currently used to ferry cargo to the International Space Station, it will eventually do so for crew as well.

Both were employed in SpaceX's Feb. 19 launch at pad 39A, and the Dragon will apparently be what's used in the planned moon mission.

SpaceX also served as the catalyst for other companies to develop their own space platforms. Even the primarily government contractor ULA has felt the need to progress, partnering with the Jeff Bezos-led startup Blue Origin to develop their own entirely new platform called the “Vulkan.”

“SpaceX started competing with ULA, showing that you don’t have to spend $300 million or $500 million on this launch,” said Tarazevits.

“SpaceX started competing with ULA, showing that you don’t have to spend $300 million or $500 million on this launch,” said Tarazevits. “We can do it for $100 million. Or $60 million.”

With the commercial launch industry reaching new heights, it's increasingly challenging to predict just how far it will go. Peter Beck (founder of Rocket Lab) sees a market in small satellites, Robert Bigelow has a vision for inflatable space stations and countless space startups are striving to make their mark on the industry.

SpaceX's ambitions are of course high as well, with plans for making humans a multi-planetary species, in addition to their efforts to make it so a company not a country is the first to plant their flag on Mars.

In the midst of all these potential ideas for the future of space, the one definitive observation to make would be that the private space industry has very much launched.