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Why pay attention to SpaceX?
aliens exist!!! aliens exist!!!!
For years I’ve been a huge fan of SpaceX. The company’s ingenuity, its adventurous spirit, its bold and uncompromising desire to expand the frontiers of knowledge, plus alien/space stuff. That ethos has always resonated with the core of who I am. It was only last week, though, that I actually bothered to learn about what the company does. Here’s four things they are doing that you should be aware of.
1. private-sector space
SpaceX first made major headlines in 2008 when its rocket Falcon 1 reached space orbit, a pioneering moment for privately-funded rockets. Since then, it has landed a string of firsts for private-sector space: first mission to the International Space Station, first crewed mission to space, first to send a payload into solar orbit (it launched a Tesla Roadster into orbit). With these accomplishments SpaceX symbolizes a new stage of the space era. Think of the internet. For decades it existed but was accessible only to the military and academia. When public funding had advanced the technology enough, it was transitioned to the private sector and innovation took off. Right now private space companies are focused on satellite-based services, research support, and tourism, i.e., nothing amazingly mind-blowing like colonizing the moon. However, there are some really exciting projects (we’ll come back to this) that suggest innovation is about to accelerate exponentially - so the distant future may be closer than you think.
SpaceX’s 2008 Falcon 1 Launch
The last section mentioned satellite-based services as an early opportunity for private space. SpaceX’s Starlink is a great example. Starlink is a constellation of tens of thousands of satellites. These satellites communicate with terrestrial equipment to provide internet coverage. The advantage of a system like Starlink is that it can reach remote parts of the Earth with great reliability. Normal internet requires physical fiber-optic cables, which are difficult to build & maintain if you are, say, drilling for oil off the Alaskan North Shore or fighting a war (why you may have heard of Ukraine using Starlink over the last year). However, over 99% of the world’s internet still goes through fiber cables. Satellites are not a viable replacement for all that traffic. Even SpaceX admits that the goal of Starlink is to provide funds for cooler long-term projects. Satellite internet is a marginal innovation, not a disruptive one. That’s what I meant earlier when I said the current services being offered by private space companies aren’t that exciting. When we think of deep-space we think of interplanetary travel and aliens that evolved with lava lamps for heads. We don’t think of better Pornhub connections for people camping in the Adirondacks. But don’t worry, the cool stuff is coming next!
3. Reusable Rockets (Falcon 9 & Falcon Heavy):
This is a SpaceX rocket launching into space and then landing in one piece.
Out of all the cool stuff SpaceX has done, this might be the coolest. It’s such a tricky engineering problem that in the 8 years since SpaceX first did it, no one else has figured it out on a consistent basis, despite tens of billions of dollars thrown at the problem. It's like in the 90s when the whole world went and bought yo-yos but only like 8 people actually figured out how to get them to come back up. From an economic angle this means SpaceX can sell space cargo for less than anyone, which is why SpaceX will deliver ~80% of the mass sent into space this year. SpaceX is bringing down the cost of entry for stellar activities. Hang on to that thought…
Starship is basically a really big spaceship that SpaceX built. So far, all it's done is blowup. The idea, though, is that bigger ships will be more cost-effective. A Greyhound bus ticket is cheaper than an Uber because a bus spreads the costs out. Same with Starship - assuming it doesn’t blow up.
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Far out but not far away
Today SpaceX charges $67 million for a Falcon 9 launch, or about $3,000 per kilogram. SpaceX has argued that as rockets become reusable and bigger, that cost per kilogram can come down to as little as $30, or reduction by a factor of 100. This seems like a lot, but it’s feasible: if you can reuse a rocket 10 times then the average cost could be 10 times cheaper. And if you can make a ship ten times bigger, then the average cost per kilogram can be ten times cheaper. Those improvements would be multiplicative, and therefore the total cost efficiency improvement would be about 100x. What happens if the cost to travel to space comes down by a factor of 100? It’s hard to say. But we can look at other similar breakthroughs and see what happened. In the fifty or so years after the lightbulb was invented, the cost of light came down by roughly a factor of 100:
Obviously homes, businesses, and streets got cheaper lights during this period. What else? Well, cheap lighting was a reason for people to build electricity in their homes. Once electricity was in the home, a wave of products (toasters, vacuums, dishwashers, etc) became more popular. Then there’s nightlife, which didn’t exist (as we know it) prior to the 19th century - how would restaurants or theater’s operate after dark? Similarly, shopping changed radically because cheap lighting meant you could go to big giant malls and department stores. Really, the second-order effects of cheaper lighting are infinite. Could Henry Ford run his Model T production process without cheap light? Does the Manhattan Project happen if scientists can’t work through the night under halogen lamps?
Simply put, when the cost of foundational need, like energy or transport, comes down by a factor of 100, the world permanently changes. This is the case with light and other great disruptions: the Gutenberg Bible brought the cost of print down, the internet brought the cost of communication down, containerization brought the cost of sea-freight down, all by a factor of >100. In each case, the disruption was massive and the waves of innovation that followed were unpredictable. When the Gutenberg Bible was invented nobody thought “Oh shit, we’re definitely gonna have a Reformation” and when the automobile was invented nobody thought “Great, our cities can fund themselves on parking tickets.” It did happen though.
The most apt comparison this time around might be the 15th century, when the invention of the caravel, modern cartography/sailing, and the magnetic compass conspired to connect Europe and America. In 1492 Columbus and his benefactors were thinking of a trade route to India. Nobody considered that corn and potatoes, indigenous to the Americas, could be brought back as staple crops and help fuel massive population growth. They didn’t consider the mass inflow of raw materials that partially triggered the industrial revolution. They certainly didn’t consider Benjamin Franklin descending from colonists and flying a kite in a storm. They couldn’t have imagined any of this because they didn’t know what they didn’t know. And today we don’t know what we don’t know about space. That’s why the world is right now at the cusp of another Gutenberg moment. The cost of space transport is about to drop by a factor of 100x. Consider how many projects NASA scientists have pitched in the last 50 years that were rejected because they just weren’t economically feasible. Space stations, experiments, planetary colonies, Magic School Bus field trips, zero-gravity theme parks, wormholes filled with literal worms (that’s my idea, don't steal it). This is why SpaceX is worth paying attention to. They are, right now, the leader of an industry getting close to a new space age. When exactly this happens I have no idea. Maybe in 3 months or maybe over the span of 50 years like it did with light. But it is happening, and it’s going to unlock innovation that, right now, we can’t even dream of.
This article has been written by someone who knows next to nothing about the space industry or engineering or space. In fact I don’t really get gravity. Here’s two cool blogs of people who write about space, understand it, and haven’t had their minds warped by business school strategy lectures:
Here’s a really insightful podcast on the new space age:
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