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Rocket Science 2.0

I’ve been working in California City over the last few months; and while the drive out begins with some lovely terrain through Tehachapi, before long the desert becomes desperately monotonous. But every now and then, if I look up into the sky, a glorious contraption cooked up from one of the Kern County rocket-shops takes a few laps around the large, open basin and my excitement level spikes.

If you haven’t noticed, some very cool stuff is happening in rocket science right now — and much of it in our own backyard. In 2004 Virgin Group CEO, Richard Branson, kick-started the privatization of space that set the stage for major revolutions in space travel. His company, Virgin Galactic, is geared towards providing spaceflights for tourists, suborbital launches for space science missions, and orbital launches of small satellites. So even though NASA may be on a down cycle, innovation continues to surge thanks to Branson and his private investment in space.

Two additional epic personas are also passionate about changing the future of space travel. Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are further re-defining the industry with a seemingly simple approach: make it cheaper. Lots cheaper. But how?

A major shift in rocket tech centers around the solid fuel boosters (read: rockets) that propel a spacecraft and it’s cargo (called a payload) off the Earth. For as long as we’ve been firing rockets we’ve treated them as expendable, disposable items. Many of us can recall watching Space Shuttle launches where the three boosters (one large and two small) hang out with the shuttle until a certain point in the launch where they detach and fall back to the ground. Until very recently we considered those boosters garbage. NASA would collect the scraps and recycle what they could, but entirely new boosters were manufactured for subsequent launches. As you might expect, these boosters cost millions of dollars which translates to each launch carrying a very high cost. What Musk and Bezos are proving is that you can safely land your boosters — independently of the spacecraft — and reuse them a dozen or more times. Did you catch that? Launch. Land. Repeat.

Together they’ve successfully landed 10 rockets on both solid ground and floating ocean barges. I can’t stress enough how much of a game changer this should prove to be. Solid fuel boosters are amazingly expensive. But with this new approach, suddenly the cost to deploy a 9-ton satellite shrinks from $62M to $39M. As you might imagine, the astro-bean-counters are sharpening their pencils feverishly with each successful landing. Reaching common destinations like Low Earth Orbit or Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit should fall by around 30% leveraging re-usable boosters. What an opportunity for space-savvy entrepreneurs to capitalize on this disruption….

If all of this sounds too good to be true, just watch a few of the “oops” landings where the booster doesn’t quite dock so gracefully and turns into a very expensive ball of fire. Landing rockets is not for the faint of heart and will likely be a work in progress for the next decade. But Musk and Bezos are unafraid. By lowering the barrier to entry for rocket launches these pioneers are changing the landscape of human achievement on Earth and into the great beyond.

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