There was some concern recently that Elon Musk wouldn’t be attending Guadalajara for the 2016 International Astronautical Congress, where SpaceX had scheduled to reveal the technical construct transporting humans to Mars for colonisation. The reason for this concern was the "fast fire" that occurred during a static fire test of the AMOS-6 mission, which was carrying Facebook’s internet.org satellite.
The satellite was lost, Mark Zuckerberg was "disappointed", and the damage to the site where the incident occurred was extensive. Many thought since this is the second vessel SpaceX have lost in 15 months and given the complexity of the investigation into the root cause, Musk would prioritise investigation and cancel his presentation. But there he was.
A Brief History Of Elon Musk
Multiple sources, including Robin Seemangal, space reporter for the Observer, confirmed that SpaceX replied to their inquiries with confirmation that Musk still intended to attend the Congress. A collective sigh of relief was let out by those attending Mexico purely to witness the man unveil how the company intends to achieve its endgame of “making humans a multiplanetary species”, which happens to be the title for his presentation as well as the mission statement for SpaceX.
In hindsight, a man like Elon Musk would understand that anomalies like the AMOS-6 event are an inevitability and while a new Falcon 9 vessel is being built and a different launch site prepared, it’s mostly business as usual. It would’ve been somewhat out of character for Musk to cancel an event as momentous as what he’d been publicising for close to a year and with taglines such “if you don’t fail, you’re not innovating hard enough”, there’s no doubt his fans would’ve been disappointed otherwise.
For those with even a faint knowledge of Musk, you’ll know he has a cult-like following. As an extremely brief rundown, Musk is of South African background, sold his first software startup to Compaq for $US341 million at the age of 28, merged X.com with Paypal and was the largest shareholder before its sale to eBay for $US1.5 billion in 2002. He married, had twins and then triplets while developing a spaceflight company -- SpaceX -- from scratch. SpaceX’s first 3 launches were catastrophic failures and this was around the time he personally funded, lead designs for and built Tesla from a laughed-at startup to a serious threat to the automotive industry.
Heavily bullied as a child, now with multiple divorces under his belt and as Robert Downey Jr’s character reference for the Iron Man movies, Musk is not one to take for granted. Concerned about the dangers of AI, he funded OpenAI with $6 million to democratise artificial intelligence and donated $1 million for the preservation of the Nikola Tesla museum, a campaign run by The Oatmeal. Oh, did we mention that SpaceX rockets can launch into orbit, land on Earth and be reused, drastically reducing the cost of access to space? Much of this may seem like the doings of a capitalist entrepreneur who’s done well for himself, profited and lived a good life -- but it’s a much higher purpose that Musk has set himself on.
Further to the above, Musk is chairman of SolarCity, a US company offering lease-based solar installations for homes and businesses. So, solar panelling, fully electric cars and rockets that can send humans to neighbouring planets. These are all big industries with huge growth potential, but the reason Musk says he’s building these companies is because:
- Humans must drop their reliance on fossil fuels if we are to continue calling Earth home
- Internal combustion cars are one of the biggest contributors to global warming, and
- There’s no backup plan for humanity if we are not multiplanetary.
It’s a good thing Musk is on our side, looking out for us rather than racketeering and warmongering because based on his accomplishments to date, if he were of a sinister disposition, the entire world would likely be in very serious trouble. It’s the work ethic, the execution and boundless attitude that have drawn a global fan base and certainly many of those fans were in Guadalajara to see him unveil his latest diabolical scheme, which has the makings of a breakthrough concept that the human race as a whole will greatly benefit from.
Gizmodo Australia was on the ground in Guadalajara, Mexico where the 67th International Astronautical Congress was to be hosted for a weeklong showcase of the latest and greatest from incumbents as well as private spaceflight newcomers. The capital city of Jalisco state seemed abuzz with people from around the world, excited about the latest developments in space technologies. It’s wasn’t just media at the event but a swarm of enthusiasts who either run social media pages covering space news or simply fans who’d flown in to Mexico, lodged via Airbnb or hotel and bought general passes to the event for €1000 to see it firsthand.
Within the last decade, private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have garnered attention for the industry as a whole from people with an interest in anything STEM-related as well as business. Previously, it would’ve been safe to assume that only Government agencies were permitted to launch rockets and deploy satellites into orbit. Thanks to the pioneering work of SpaceX, the business of space exploration is now an open game for anyone brave enough to outperform veteran operators like NASA, the Russian Government and manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, TRW or Sierra Nevada.
Why Do We Care About Mars?
So, onto the details. What is going on with Mars, why do we care and how is it that you’ll be doing whatever it is you’re doing, Elon? Taking the stage with a somber and serious demeanour, Musk launched straight into his purpose of making it clear that getting to Mars is something we’ll be able to do in our lifetimes. It’s not a faraway fantasy that’s irrelevant to our generation. As it turns out, SpaceX will be developing the spaceship and rocket booster required for our trip to Mars within the next 4 years. From there a few years of testing and orbit launches before it’s on to the real deal.
Musk’s presentation started with a brief overview of our solar system, the pros and cons of life on other planets and finally a technical comparison of Earth and Mars. Using comparisons with single-use jumbo jets, Musk shows a simplified reason why reusable rocketry is so important to making interplanetary existence a reality. The cost per person for a single-use flight from Melbourne to Sydney is around $500,000 USD based on the $90 million cost of the plane and the seating capacity. However, the price is only about $50 thanks to the vessel being reusable and we’re told that the same concept applies in spaceflight.
For such an ambitious plan like transporting humans to Mars and beyond, a new kind of vessel has to be developed. The yet-to-be-named vehicle is described as 12m in diameter, 122m tall and primarily of a carbon-fibre structure. Consisting of a top-mount “cabin” and main booster section, it will escape the atmosphere using 42 individual rocket engines. These new engines, dubbed “Raptor”, are said to cumulatively provide 28.5 million pounds of thrust. The rocket will consist of 35 Raptor engines built in a fixed, twin row, outer ring configuration and 7 more in the centre of the base, which will gimbal as directed by an operator or pilot to allow a steering effect during flight.
The cabin, which has is described as detaching from the rocket booster once it’s escaped the gravitational pull of Earth and once the main booster returns to Earth and lands, it is very quickly fitted with a refueling tanker that will again be launched up to meet with the cabin section, refuel it and then the journey begins from there. Just an hour before Musk’s presentation, SpaceX uploaded the highly detailed simulation video of exactly how they intend to achieve this and it can be viewed here.
After the presentation, Musk attended an impromptu press conference that was announced by his communication team 10 minutes after it was scheduled to start. Press were scrambling to get to Room E5 at the Guadalajara Expo where Musk was waiting along with his Head of Communications, Dex Torricke-Barton -- previously speechwriter for Mark Zuckerberg and Eric Schmidt. During the roughly 20 minute press brief, Musk answered successive technical questions by space journalists including one from Tim Dodd at SpaceFlightNow. Regarding the landings SpaceX have achieved using the Falcon 9 booster, Musk was asked why the booster is equipped with only 3 stabilising fins and only 3 legs when some may consider 4 to be more capable a configuration.
In true SpaceX fashion, Musk responded by explaining the pitch, yaw and roll effects the fins have when used together and closed by saying 4 would be redundant, unnecessary and increase development costs. Using camera tripods as an example, using 4 legs would cause an uneven or unpredictable surface to have a planing effect on the vessel and though 3 might appear less stable, there’s far less tilt using 3 than if camera tripods were to use 4 legs.
So far, SpaceX’s ‘Falcon 9’ rocket has been the safe bet for companies looking to deliver commercial satellites into orbit at reasonable rates. Its first stage booster uses 9x Merlin 1-D engines delivering a combined thrust of 1.8 million pounds in the vacuum of space. The Falcon 9, Merlin engines and supporting components are almost entirely designed and manufactured by SpaceX themselves in Hawthorne, California. Interplanetary Transport System to Mars (and back).
Now that Musk has released the details...
The 68th IAC event in 2017 will be hosted in Adelaide, for any local readers interested in being in the front row for learning about developments in opening new worlds and advancing humanity to further reaches of our solar system. As Musk has pointed out on multiple occasions, at the rate we’re depleting Earth’s resources and polluting the air we breathe, it’s a mathematical certainty that humanity will eventually have to “jump ship” to another planet.