How SpaceX lowered costs and reduced barriers to space

On March 2, SpaceX plans to launch its first test of an unmanned Dragon vehicle which is designed to carry humans into low Earth orbit and to the International Space Station. If the test is successful, later this year, SpaceX plans to launch American astronauts from United States soil for the first time since 2011.

While a major milestone for a private company, SpaceX’s most significant achievement has been in lowering the launch costs that have limited many space activities. While making several modifications to the fuel and engines, SpaceX’s major breakthroughs have come through recovering and reusing as much of the rocket and launch vehicle as possible.

Between 1970 and 2000, the cost to launch a kilogram to space remained fairly steady, with an average of US$18,500 per kilogram. When the space shuttle was in operation, it could launch a payload of 27,500 kilograms for $1.5 billion, or $54,500 per kilogram. For a SpaceX Falcon 9, the rocket used to access the ISS, the cost is just $2,720 per kilogram.

I’m a space policy analyst, and I’ve observed that cost has been a major hurdle limiting access to space. Since the 1950s, the high cost of a space program has traditionally put it beyond the reach of most countries. Today, state and private actors alike have ready access to space. And while SpaceX is not the only private company providing launch services – Orbital ATK, recently purchased by Northrop Grumman, United Launch Alliance and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin are also players – it has emerged as the most significant.

SpaceX’s achievements

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, speaks at a news conference after the Falcon 9 SpaceX heavy rocket launched successfully from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. AP Photo/John Raoux
Frustrated with NASA and influenced by science fiction writers, Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002. Though it suffered several setbacks, in 2008 it launched the first privately funded liquid-fueled rocket, the Falcon 1. Falcon 9 flew for the first time the next year, and in 2012, the Dragon capsule became the first privately funded spacecraft to dock with the ISS. SpaceX has since focused on recovering key parts of the Falcon 9 to enhance reusability and reduce costs. This includes the Falcon 9’s first stage which, once it expends its fuel, falls back through the atmosphere reaching speeds of 5,200 miles per hour before reigniting its engines to land on a drone recovery ship.

In 2018 alone, SpaceX made 21 successful launches. The new Falcon Heavy rocket – a more powerful version of the Falcon 9 – launched in February. This rocket can lift 63,800 kilograms, equivalent to more than 27 Asian elephants, to low Earth orbit and 16,800 kilograms to Mars for just $90 million. The test payload was Musk’s own red Tesla Roadster, with a mannequin named Starman in the driver’s seat.

In addition to the crewed Dragon tests this year, SpaceX is continuing development of its Starship, which will be designed to travel through the solar system and carry up to 100 passengers sometime in the 2020s. Musk has also suggested that the Starship could serve as the foundation for a lunar base.

Impact on space exploration

SpaceX’s technical advances and cost reductions have changed the direction of U.S. space policy. In 2010, the Obama administration moved away from NASA’s Constellation program, which called for the development of a family of rockets that could reach low Earth orbit and be used for long-distance spaceflight. With NASA falling significantly behind schedule, because of technological difficulties and budget cuts, the Obama administration was left with a choice of whether to boost funds for NASA or change direction.