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Getting Higher: SpaceX Wants Rockets to be More Like Cheap Beer and Less Like Cocaine

Though the company's attempt to land a rocket on a floating landing pad in the Atlantic Ocean failed Saturday, it was a first step toward making space travel much more affordable.
Photo via SpaceX

SpaceX has finally come to the point of taking some of its newest technology development efforts for a spin in the real world. The company tried Saturday morning to land a rocket on a floating landing pad in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Though the attempt failed — founder Elon Musk put the odds of success prior to launch at just 50 percent — it could mark the beginning of some super important things in years to come.


A lot of folks understand that space is hard. But it's difficult for a non-rocket scientist to grasp how very,very difficult it is. Being in orbit is quite literally a matter of going so fast that while you're constantly trying to crash into the planet, you keep missing the entire world.Altitude isn't really that big of a deal — you could go into orbit around the Earth at an altitude of 20,000 feet — it's just that you're going to run into things like air molecules, aircraft, and mountains that will slow you down. Rockets go into the cold, hard, vacuum of space because they're trying to move payloads so fast that even the faintest wisps of atmosphere start slowing the spacecraft down too much.

The fact that getting a payload up to an altitude of a couple hundred miles isn't anywhere near the hardest part should offer a sense of what a huge pain it is to get going fast enough to stay in orbit. The only really good way — so far — that anyone has been able to manage the challenge of imparting all that kinetic energy to a payload is by putting those payloads on very large, very lightweight structures filled with incredibly explosive fuel, and then burning that fuel very, very quickly in what amounts to a continual almost-but-not-quite-catastrophic explosion.

Because it's difficult, it involves a lot of very specialized, very high-precision gear that must run perfectly and reliably; after takeoff, the options for fixing stuff are limited. All these things — precision, performance, and reliability — mean that the kit required to put things in space is astonishingly expensive. By comparison, the fuel is essentially free.


At the high end, the price to put something into orbit can be $10,000 per pound or more. For some rockets, the price of putting a pound into orbit starts to approach the price per pound of cocaine, which sells for roughly $30,000 per kilo (a kilo is about 2.2 pounds) in the US. Fortunately, however, most of these super expensive launch vehicles have gone by the wayside.

SpaceX wants to change the economics of getting into space from something crazy — smuggling cocaine in homemade submarines — down to something more mundane, like a distributor dropping off kegs of Bud at a local college bar.

Today, at the bottom end of the scale, launch runs from about $5,000 to $2,000 per pound, which puts you in roughly the same price range as marijuana. And that's just the shipping costs associated with getting stuff into space. We're not even talking about the costs of the satellites themselves, which are staggeringly high.

Overall, it's not hard to see why there aren't very many business plans that can turn a profit with those costs. Nearly anything that involves doing something in space more complicated than having a really good line of sight to the planet — communications satellites or cameras — is a non-starter right now.

One thing that makes it so damned expensive is that the rockets are all going on one-way trips. If you threw away the aircraft every time you took a flight, it would start getting pretty pricey. A new Boeing 777 costs around $300 million dollars. If passengers had to cover the cost of buying the entire plane for a single trip, the tickets would make first class seem like a bargain.


This is where reusability comes in. If there's a way that you can reuse all that complex, high-precision stuff, then voila! Reusability has been a Holy Grail for rocket scientists for years. But if reusing stuff saves that much money and everyone likes it, why aren't we doing it?

What does the US military's new space plane really do? Read more here.

Remember that part about space being very hard and very tricky? Reusability is way, way harder than that. All of the strain and stress of riding on top of an explosion is matched by the flat-out trauma of reentry. NASA found this out firsthand, discovering that making a reusable Space Shuttle is a more technically demanding feat than even landing a guy on the moon. And the Space Shuttle, which is only semi-reusable and was never as fully operational as its designers hoped it would become, is the best humans have ever managed to do.

It shouldn't be too surprising that, for most launch vehicles, manufacturers have decided that, technologically speaking, discretion is the better part of valor and stayed away from reusability altogether. Therefore, it was a bit surprising that SpaceX has not only tackled the task but also gotten this far.

SpaceX was aiming to land the rocket launched Saturday morning on a floating platform about 200 miles off the coast of Florida, north of the launch site at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Though the rocket's cargo capsule was successfully launched into space, the attempt to park the rocket on the sea platform failed.


"Rocket made it to drone spaceport ship, but landed hard. Close, but no cigar this time," Musk tweeted. "Bodes well for the future."

Think about one-use disposable anything. Disposable cameras, paper plates, plastic cups — pretty much any disposable version of a thing is going to be cheaper than the robust, made-to-last reusable version. And if rockets already cost so much already, then a reusable rocket could cost a huge amount more.

And this is where it gets a little more interesting. SpaceX, in general, hasn't actually been getting all this attention because they're doing something more high-tech and cooler than anyone else in rocket science. It's not to say that their rockets are particularly bad, but that launching things into orbit, although challenging, has already been done many times. Where SpaceX has been doing their heavy lifting is on the process and management side — and that's where the rubber really meets the road on reusability.

Consider the fact that launch is difficult and really works hardware to its absolute limits already. Once a rocket has come back, it has be refurbished before it's ready to fly again. It might even take so much rebuilding and remanufacturing that it will be more expensive to reuse the rocket than it is to make one from scratch. It's kind of like "totaling" a car in an accident; sometimes repairs are more expensive than just replacing the whole thing. So SpaceX's ability to quickly process and refurbish rockets is going to be what really starts cutting costs. Same with fixing a car, the cost of fixing a rocket is driven by labor and other factors, and those are areas where the company's insights on operations could really pay off.


And for Musk's gamble to pay off in a big, historic groundbreaking kind of way, SpaceX can't just end up with a reusable rocket that's cheaper than a disposable launch vehicle. It needs to be a lot cheaper. Right now, launch prices are so high that they close out the vast majority of theoretical businesses in space. Dropping launch prices from — let's say $2,000 per pound down to $1,500 per pound — will get you an existing customer who was using a different launch provider. But what it won't do is open up space to new users — there aren't a lot of business plans that have been prevented from happening because launch costs won't get below $1,999.

In economic terms, this is a matter of elasticity. The challenge is to get the price of launch down low enough that it really does start expanding the possible things people could do in space. Right now, the high cost of launch means only a handful of businesses can make a go of it. Space folks want to get launch costs so low that new, different, diverse space industries can finally get off the ground.

Some have estimated that the price they'll need for this to happen is about $100 per pound. On a per pound basis, that runs about the same price as a very expensive whiskey, such as Johnny Walker Blue. That's definitely cheaper than cocaine, but still, if you're trying to send a person into space, and it costs their weight in expensive scotch to do it, it still seems too pricey. Now if they can get prices down to beer levels — $5 or $10 per pound — then we're talking something equivalent to airfreight prices. That's still too much for bulk commodities, but very doable in a lot of other cases.

So, really SpaceX wants to change the economics of getting into space from something crazy — smuggling cocaine in homemade submarines — down to something more mundane, like a distributor dropping off kegs of Bud at a local college bar.

The objective isn't just to be cheaper for the sake of being cheap — getting costs down that far is too expensive just to undercut current competition. SpaceX wants to get prices down far enough to encourage new users because that's how they can reallystart incorporating space in the economic mainstream. Such a change could allow for economies of scale, getting a meaningful slice of global capital flow, industrial synergies, and more.

Once you get to that point, you can start talking much more seriously about building big space stations — the kind of thing dreamed up by2001: A Space Odyssey. It wouldn't be like the International Space Station, but more like a big Hilton with a fancy cocktail bar. Granted, drinks at that interstellar cocktail bar could be twice as expensive as normal because of shipping costs — but hey, the views of Earth would totally make up for it.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter:@Operation_Ryan