SpaceX, and its founder Elon Musk, has been putting NASA to shame.
Early March saw the milestone of the company’s 50th Falcon 9 rocket launch, and with it, a bus-sized satellite, the largest SpaceX has launched into orbit.
Over the past eight years, these Falcon missions have seen many successes, except for one rocket and payload that was destroyed at launch. That impressive record is a testament to Musk’s determination and ingenuity, given that competitor United Launch Alliance took over 10 years to accomplish the same feat with its Atlas V rocket.
In February, on the back of the Falcon Heavy rocket, SpaceX launched a red Tesla convertible into orbit. Other than “moon buggies,” it’s the only wheeled vehicle that has made it to space. in August 2017, while carrying a Taiwanese satellite, the Falcon 9’s launch actually ripped a 900-kilometre hole in the ionosphere (a particle layer in the atmosphere from 60 km to 1,000 km in altitude) that lasted for three hours.
The resulting ripple effect was felt across nearly two million square kilometres over the western US and Pacific Ocean – the largest rocket-created hole yet, according to Advancing Earth and Space Science journal. The disturbance in the upper and middle atmosphere was said to have affected GPS signals, throwing navigation systems off by up to a metre.
In addition to satellites, the Falcon’s missions have included cargo transport to the International Space Station. In June 2010, the Falcon model’s maiden voyage was launched, with four more missions through March 2013. Version 1.1, used from September 2013 to January 2016, launched 15 times. The latest iteration, the Falcon 9 Full Thrust, was launched in December 2015, with the capacity to carry payloads of up to 23 metric tonnes in low Earth orbit, or just over eight tonnes for satellite orbit.
Though the first Falcon was entirely underwritten by SpaceX, NASA has subsequently helped fund Falcon 9’s development to the tune of $400 million, while also signing on to purchase future commercial flights.
Musk has gone on record noting that NASA’s investment sped up development, and NASA concedes that these missions would have otherwise run a government tab of $3.6 billion.
Musk says his goal is to have test flights ready next year for trips to Mars, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first walk on the moon. The visionary billionaire also wants the Block 5 variation of the Falcon 9 rocket to be able to fly humans into space by 2019.
Dave Gordon | Contributing Writer