I freely admit to pumping my fists in the air and yelling out loud when SpaceX has successful launches.
The first truly successful private space venture, what they’re doing is the start, the very beginning of the future of everything.
Now that they have a robust launch platform, and their Dragon capsule is already undergoing the testing regime to become human-rated by NASA, what will they do next?
Elon Musk, SpaceX’s CEO has announced on several occasions that their ambition is to put people on Mars. The following is a three stage plan – with profitability in mind – that just might get them there.
The underlying notion is to build a set of standardized components for each step along the way – much like the way the automobile industry works (vehicles filling various niches, companies to service them, refueling stations, leasing etc). This isn’t a new concept, and all of the players in this industry already understand this strategy well.
There’s a need for a platform (i.e. vehicles, standard refueling methodology, expertise, price lists etc) for moving things around once they’re in orbit.
This could consist of a robotic space-taxi for moving and refueling satellites (cheaper than building an launching a new one, and also cheaper than sending a person to do the job), collecting space junk (to be determined: who pays? UPDATE: looks like there’s a customer for this), or potentially a human-rated version.
With Bigelow Aerospace (and other companies) planning private space stations, the ability to reliably move things around in orbit could be profitable, and given that SpaceX already has launch capabilities, they may be able to do this more cheaply than others.
Once there is a profitable space-taxi platform in operation, extending its range to service Earth-Moon traffic (approximately one week round trip) isn’t a stretch.
Other key components might – although not necessarily – include standardized vehicles for landing cargo on the lunar surface, or launching payloads back to lunar orbit. These are not particularly complex devices compared to similar ones for landing on Earth; the lack of a lunar atmosphere, and its much lower surface gravity simplify the technology required.
It looks like NASA (and others, including the Chinese) are planning permanent lunar bases at some point in the next couple of decades. There’s a business case for governments outsourcing the back-and-forth trucking to a third party, allowing them to focus on building a base (although even that could be outsourced) and research.
3. Long Haul
Dedicated deep space vehicles are still a stretch technically. There’s a number of issues that haven’t really been resolved when it comes to transporting people for extended periods of time in outer space. Closed loop ecosystems aren’t quite there yet, and both radiation and lack of gravity are issues.
However, even for space probes, there could be a business case for a dedicated, reusable transport vehicle that remains in space permanently.
The specific equipment for a probe could be launched into low Earth orbit and then dock with a long-range transport vehicle that would take it the rest of the way.
Somebody would need to crunch the numbers, but launching a simplified probe without the need for extended propulsion could reduce development costs, and allow for larger payloads.
Once a long-range deep space platform is in place (i.e. standardized vehicles, refueling depots, cargo routes etc), this can gradually (and hopefully profitably) be extended to moving people.