SAN FRANCISCO — Forty years ago this week two astronauts made history by walking on the moon. With all the celebration of that giant leap, little had been made over another milestone: the launch of a private rocket into space.
A Malaysian satellite is now orbiting Earth, put into space last week by a rocket built by a small California company. Commercial space enthusiasts said the launch, albeit modest in comparison to the lunar landing, shows how small companies and governments are reaching for the heavens.
A SpaceX rocket took off from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean carrying a satellite designed to provide high-resolution images. The cameras are to take photos of agricultural lands, forests, cities and other targets in Malaysia for commercial and government customers.
The launch marked the first payload delivered by the seven-year-old company founded by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk. The 38-year-old Musk, who made his fortune as a co-founder of PayPal, is also the driving force behind the Tesla electric sports car.
“These guys are entrepreneurs,” said David Livingston, host of the Internet radio site, The Space Show. “They want to lower the cost of putting payloads into orbit so that other entrepreneurs can figure out how to do new things in space.”
Three prior launches by the company fell short of reaching orbit and a September launch successfully put a dummy payload into orbit. The company is also working on building a reusable spacecraft for transporting cargo and crew to orbiting destinations. Its says its long-term goal is to enable humanity to become a space-faring civilization.
SpaceX is not alone in this privately funded space race: the Google Lunar X Prize offers $30 million to any team that successfully puts a robot lander on the moon and Virgin Galactic is aiming to become the world's first spaceline, taking private individuals to space. The space tourism business had attracted $1.2 billion in investment, according to survey presented at the 2008 International Space Development Conference.
Livingston said SpaceX is gearing up to compete with the U.S. aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, as well a handful of government-backed efforts like the Russian Soyuz program and the European Ariane rocket. China, India, Japan and Brazil also have active rocket programs, putting the small California firm into a truly global competition.
But John Pike, an aerospace expert with GlobalSecurity.org, said the SpaceX launch actually showed how little progress has been made in space over the last 40 years, especially as compared to other technology fields like computing.
“There has been essentially no improvement in rocket performance since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president,” Pike said. “There has been no cheaper, faster, better in the rocket industry.”
Pike said today's launch vehicles face the same limitation that has frustrated rocket builders as far back as 1957, when Russia began the space race with the launch of Sputnik — most of a rocket's weight is still devoted to carrying the fuel that it must burn in order to get its payload into orbit.
“It's tough to escape gravity and nobody's found a better way yet than lugging a lot of fuel into space,” Pike said.
Livingston agreed that this fact continues to impede efforts to commercialize space, noting that only 6 to 8 percent of a rocket's weight is payload.
But Livingston said Musk has figured out how to reduce launch costs in other ways, notably by minimizing the number of technicians required to attend the rocket and prepare it for liftoff.
“If you look at a typical launch pad it's swarming with people,” Livingston said. “But SpaceX does just about everything with web cameras and remote control. That is the difference. These guys can launch with the fewest personnel.”
SpaceX officials declined to be interviewed but published reports say launches on the new rocket will cost about $8 million. Livingston said SpaceX is competitive with the lowest cost launches available today and will continue to whittle down costs to make new types of commercial space projects more feasible.
He said one such potential application is the study of protein crystals formed in the space. Proteins are the active mechanisms of biological processes and diseases often result from protein breakdowns. Crystallizing a protein to determine its structure can help to design drugs.
NASA studies have shown that proteins crystallize better in weightless environments. Livingston said drugs are so profitable that pharmaceutical companies could become commercial space customers if they had routine and reliable ways to get crystallization experiments into space and back again.
“The path to solving many of Earth's problems lies in space,” Livingston said. “SpaceX is trying to begin to change the cost equation of getting into orbit and I think they deserve a lot of credit for that.”
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