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Elon Musk is a very smart man. He is among a small percentage of entrepreneurs who understand the implications of human-fuelled climate change and humankind’s cavalier attitude towards the environment. He also understands science and technology. He knows that for humans to survive as a species, we need to become multiplanetary.

Enter Mars. Mars was once very much like Earth in structure and appearance. There was a rich atmosphere, regulated temperature and oceans of water. However, as the planet lost its atmosphere due to the solar winds and water to the increasing heat, it lost its habitability. Here’s the thing though. Mars is cold, but not too cold. It is still close enough to the sun and has enough water ice to become warm again. Its days are almost exactly as long as ours. It has seasons like ours (albeit twice as long). Its gravity isn’t as low as the moon’s or as maniacally high as Jupiter’s. Basically, there’s a strong possibility of it being able to host life in the future.

A SpaceX upgraded Falcon 9 rocket undergoes launch preparations at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Photo: Gene Blevins/Reuters
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A SpaceX upgraded Falcon 9 rocket undergoes launch preparations at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Photo: Gene Blevins/Reuters

Musk knows that. Since 2001, he has been working on ways to make that possibility real. He began 15 years ago with a project he titled Mars Oasis. This mission aimed to have landers carrying greenhouses to the planet with seeds in dehydrated gel. Once the greenhouses reached Mars, the gel would be rehydrated and plants might grow. To achieve this, he needed rockets. After meeting officials of several companies that launch payloads into space, Musk realized that rockets were ridiculously expensive. So he decided to build them himself.

Thus began SpaceX. Founded in June 2002, it is today perhaps the most well-known non-governmental player in the space race. The company’s primary objective—at least for the moment—is creating reusable rockets.

Rockets are highly complex and, therefore, highly expensive. A rocket essentially consists of an engine, fuel, and a tank to store the fuel. In more technical terms, these are the rocket engine, propellant, and propellant tank. The engine guides the propellant to burn in a combustion chamber in the tank in a controlled manner. This burn produces high volumes of gas that escapes through nozzles and produces the thrust required to lift the rocket into space. The propellant is usually a mixture of fuel and oxygen.

As rockets use up fuel, their tanks become empty. But empty tanks still add to the rocket’s weight. Weight is critical when flying out to space—the more the weight, the more the fuel you need to carry it, and the slower it travels. As rockets aimed for greater heights, there was a pressing need to reduce the weight of rockets. Thus, the multi-stage rocket was born.

The Manned Dragon V2 Space Taxi. Photo: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
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The Manned Dragon V2 Space Taxi. Photo: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

The combination of engine-propellant-tank is called a “stage". When rockets need to go higher, multiple stages are stacked one on top of the other. Nearly every rocket we hear of today is a multi-stage. After the depletion of fuel from one stage, the entire stage can detach itself and fall back (“jettison") into the ocean or into the atmosphere, safely destroying itself away from humans. Nearly every rocket we hear of today is a multi-stage.

But the jettisoning of stages makes rockets even more expensive. These stages, built with precision, are valuable structures, but can be used only once. It’s quite ridiculous that so much of our money burns up in the atmosphere or sinks to the depths of the oceans. This is exactly what Musk thinks is a big problem too, but unlike other players in the industry, he sought a solution—reusability. SpaceX’s rocket stages will not fall off. Instead, they will be guided back to earth, so they can fly back up again. SpaceX has managed to do this today with the first stage (the first successful landing was in December 2015), but it wasn’t easy.

After investing his own money and raising through many rounds of funding, Musk announced that their first rocket would be called Falcon 1 (the family is called Falcon), after the Millennium Falcon from the Star Wars movie series. This was not yet reusable. To understand reusability, they needed to understand usability. With Falcon 1, SpaceX’s objective was to bring down manufacturing and launching costs while increasing reliability. It worked. The cost of launching the first successful (non-reusable) two-stage Falcon 1, in 2008, was nearly one-third that of market competition.

Musk at a conference in Mexico in September. Photo: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg
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Musk at a conference in Mexico in September. Photo: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

While Falcon 1 was a step in the right direction, it had its share of downers. Its first three launches were failures. Musk was under tremendous pressure as SpaceX hadn’t made money and they had enough for just about four launches. They were lucky that the fourth launch was successful. The US space agency, Nasa, took note and gave them a contract for 12 launches to carry payloads that deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). SpaceX was now a profitable company.

After an upgraded Falcon 1e, SpaceX announced the Falcon 9 (so named because it has nine first-stage engines). The Falcon 9 is also two-staged, with a reusable first stage. It can carry nearly 23,000kg into low Earth orbit. Falcon 9’s three versions (Falcon 9 v1.0, three variations of Falcon 9 v1.1, and two variations of the currently-operational Falcon 9 Full Thrust) have flown a total of 28 times, since 2010. One failed in June last year, when it blew up after 2 minutes, 30 seconds, and one in September this year, during a static-fire test. Of the 28 launches, landing the first stage back on Earth was attempted on 18, with 10 successes.

Landing the first stage back is pivotal to making reusable rockets. The progress is incremental. Once you figure out how to bring the larger, closer-to-Earth first stage back, you can work out how to bring the second stage home too. Musk worked on it for years. After three failed attempts to land the first stage, SpaceX almost achieved success in April 2014. The first stage landed successfully, but then tipped over and burst into flames. The same thing happened twice more, but it was now only a question of perfecting the landing. They did it finally on 8 April 2016, successfully landing a first stage back on a barge out in the sea (called an autonomous spaceport drone-ship).

While Musk aimed to land back at the launchpad, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, whose company Blue Origin had been testing the same technology, managed to land the sub-orbital first stage of a New Shepard rocket back on land in November 2015. The two rockets are not fully comparable. New Shepard barely touches the boundaries of space, is lighter and smaller (15m high and 21,000kg in weight), and comes back to Earth quite quickly. Falcon 9, on the other hand, makes its way out into space so that its upper stage can deliver supplies to the ISS and requires longer manoeuvring to return to Earth. Not to mention the sheer size and weight (70m high and almost 550,000kg in weight) of the monster, of course.

Both Bezos and Musk are putting us on the right path. SpaceX has tested two vertical take-off, vertical landing (VTVL) systems called the Grasshopper and the Falcon 9 Reusable Development Vehicle (F9R). Both together were flown 13 times to test vertical landing mechanisms and have been retired. The engine that is now used to power SpaceX is called the Merlin engine; the upcoming engine will be called Raptor. The two autonomous spaceport drone-ships are called Of Course I Still Love You and Just Read The Instructions.

SpaceX also has a craft called Dragon that it uses to deliver cargo to other orbiting structures. The Dragon has successfully delivered payloads to the ISS 10 times. SpaceX plans to use the same structure for a bigger craft called Red Dragon in its mission to Mars.

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