Silicon Valley shoots for the stars in the new space race

From CNET Magazine: Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have set their sights on spaceflight. Their efforts just might put us on Mars.

Luke Lancaster Associate Editor / Australia
Luke Lancaster is an Associate Editor with CNET, based out of Australia. He spends his time with games (both board and video) and comics (both reading and writing).
Luke Lancaster
5 min read

The live-stream video lasts only a minute: A gray platform the size of a football field bobs somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. A 14-story rocket comes into view from the upper right of the picture. Arriving back end first, flames blazing in a landing burn, the rocket's headed for the floating target. The rocket is the SpaceX Falcon 9, and it's about to make history.

Four landing legs spring from the base, the Falcon 9 gently makes touchdown -- and stays upright.

SpaceX had tried four times before to land its Falcon 9 rocket on a robotic barge. In those attempts, the rocket either missed the target or hit it too hard, falling over and exploding.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket makes its first successful landing at sea, April 8, 2016.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket makes its first successful landing at sea, April 8, 2016.

NASA via Getty Images

"It's like trying to land on a postage stamp," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said later in a press conference. "It's like a carrier landing versus a land landing." The company had managed one of those landings (and only one) four months earlier, on a pad it had built in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

There have been other successful -- and failed -- landings since that first one at sea in April. Each has marked a milestone in SpaceX's efforts to "revolutionize space technology." Each has also brought us closer to commercialization of the spaceflight industry, as businesses see opportunities beyond the stratosphere.

SpaceX may be the best-known company in the space market, but it's far from alone. Others include Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, which has successfully launched and landed its own rockets. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic bills itself as the "world's first commercial spaceline" for passengers willing to pay $250,000 a ticket. Vector Space Systems aims to launch small satellites. And a startup called Moon Express got US government approval (PDF) to fly to the moon. Their goals differ.

Vector would like customers to book its "vehicles" to launch commercial satellites on demand. Moon Express envisions a future in lunar mining, repairing satellites and clearing space junk, co-founder Naveen Jain told Time in August. Blue Origin wants to "seed an enduring human presence in space," according to its website. That could range from moving heavy industry off-planet, as Bezos said in June, to colonizing other worlds.

And Musk wants to get to Mars.

It's not empty talk. Working with NASA, SpaceX expects to launch an unmanned Red Dragon space capsule to Mars in May 2018. In June, Silicon Valley's best-known visionary said he intends to land a human-carrying spacecraft on Mars by 2025, followed every 26 months with fresh supplies and additional colonists.

"That's what it takes to sustain a civilization," Musk said.

Matt Murphy

That's assuming SpaceX doesn't have any more major setbacks. It's already had two: In June 2015, a Falcon 9 carrying cargo to the International Space Station broke up midflight. And in September, explosions destroyed a Falcon 9 and its satellite payload during a routine test two days before its scheduled launch. The "incident -- while it was not a NASA launch -- is a reminder that spaceflight is an incredible challenge, but our partners learn from each success and setback," NASA said in a statement the day of the explosion.

Facebook had planned to use the destroyed satellite to beam internet service to rural Africa.

Following an investigation into the Falcon 9 explosion, SpaceX expects to make its return to orbit as soon as January 14.

Rinse and repeat

Reaching these ambitious goals requires a series of advances.

For both SpaceX and Blue Origin, it comes down to making spaceflight cheaper by reusing rockets to launch people and cargo into orbit. It's going to take a lot of tries for that to become routine.

According to SpaceX's published price list, a Falcon 9 rocket costs about $62 million to launch. For comparison, United Launch Alliance says it costs about $225 million to launch one of its rockets. French competitor Airbus Safran Launchers claims its new Ariane 6 rocket will cost about $77 million.

​Elon Musk

Elon Musk

Robyn Beck/Getty Images

While SpaceX already has the cheapest prices in space, the cost of launching a previously used Falcon 9 will be 30 percent less, according to company President Gwynne Shotwell. As of this writing, SpaceX expects to resume spaceflights in January.

And Blue Origin? Refurbishing its New Shepard spacecraft costs "in the small tens of thousands of dollars," Bezos told Ars Technica this year. Blue Origin's "reusable launch system" is much smaller than the Falcon 9 and is capable only of suborbital flight.

"The focus on reusability is a service that no one else offers," says Casey Dreier, director of space policy for The Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization that promotes the exploration of space.

"NASA pioneered reusability with the space shuttle, but that came at a high cost."

The space agency has awarded SpaceX at least three contracts, worth more than $5 billion, to resupply the International Space Station. So far, private supply missions have ferried more than 59,000 pounds of cargo to the ISS, says NASA's communications officer, Tabatha Thompson.

"NASA's vision of commercial human spaceflight is of vibrant, profit-making enterprises enabling exploration," she says.

Where no one has gone before

It's hard to tell if SpaceX or Blue Origin is making any money from their efforts, since neither is saying. We do have a pretty good idea that SpaceX has agreed to spend about $300 million on just the 2018 Mars lander mission.

SpaceX "did talk to us about a 10-to-1 arrangement in terms of cost: theirs 10, ours one," NASA's Jim Reuter told a NASA Advisory Council meeting in July, after estimating the agency's cost at $32 million. "I think that's in the ballpark."

Why would Musk agree to such an uneven arrangement?


See more from CNET Magazine.

Mark Mann

"Elon will be the first person they land on Mars," says Jim Cantrell, one of the founders of SpaceX and now CEO of Vector Space Systems. "It was pretty clear to me from the first day I dealt with him that's what he wanted to do."

Musk has a history of pushing established players in new directions. Many consider Tesla Motors the world's most influential automaker, pressuring nearly the entire industry to develop electric vehicles.

We're starting to see that same dynamic in space as SpaceX and other "private companies push NASA to act and plan faster, to be more aggressive in their timelines," says Dreier.

The last time a human broke free from Earth's orbit was the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. We're about to reach out even farther, thanks in large part to the commercialization of spaceflight.

"We're going to Mars together," says Thompson.

This story appears in the winter 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.

First published online December 11, 2016.
Updated January 11, 2017: Added information on when SpaceX expects to resume launches.