Have you heard of SpaceX? Short for Space Exploration Technologies, SpaceX is a leader in the field of commercial space flight. NASA has purchased SpaceX’s Dragon cargo ships to resupply the International Space Station. Recently, the company, headed by Tesla Motors exec Elon Musk, aired a live broadcast of the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket on its way to put a new commercial satellite into space.
The company is looking to build a launchpad in Texas, supported by state and local funds. With NASA out of the space shuttle business since 2011, it has begun relying more and more on commercial space flight companies to support its missions. If you are looking for a good research paper topic in aeronautics, astronomy, or aviation, consider looking into SpaceX and other commercial space flight companies.
Who is Elon Musk?
Though Elon Musk mostly makes the news in conjunction with the Tesla Motors electric cars, he has a long history as an entrepreneur. In a profile of Musk included in the 2011 book, Realizing Tomorrow: The Path to Private Spaceflight, authors Chris Dubbs and Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom described Musk as “the type of highly driven motivated individual who has driven so many of the critical developments in the private space flight industry.” A native of South Africa, Musk has been involved with such successful ventures as:
- Tesla Motors
- Solar City
By 2011, Musk had invested more than $100 million of his own funds into SpaceX, and he expressed hopes that SpaceX would one day be able to support interplanetary travel. For a man who began the company not knowing anything about rockets, Musk has led the company to contract with NASA and communications agencies wanting to launch satellites on a regular basis. As of 2011, according to Dubbs and Paat-Dahlstrom, the company had signed almost $2 billion in commercial launches, and has remained cash positive since 2007.
The SpaceX Dragon
The SpaceX vehicle line Dragon was a cargo ship designed to resupply the International Space Station—until earlier this year when the company revealed its Dragon V2. The upgraded vehicle is designed to carry astronauts. Rather than splashing down in the ocean like the Dragon V1, the V2 features landing legs, and boasts the ability to land with the precision of a helicopter. Paired with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, the Dragon V2 is one of the three astronaut-bearing ships hoping to win a contract from NASA. What are the other companies NASA works with that might be in the running?
- Orbital Sciences Corp., which scored eight cargo flights (compared to SpaceX’s 12 flight contract)
- Boeing Co., which remains ahead of SpaceX in military satellite launch contracts with the Air Force
- Sierra Nevada Corp., another designer of passenger spaceships
While NASA waits for a viable astronaut-bearing vessel, it pays more than $60 million to Russia for American astronauts’ round-trip flights to the International Space Station.
Live launches and bringing in business
But while SpaceX is focused on winning contracts with NASA, it hasn’t forgotten to encourage public support of space flight. On Tuesday, August 5, SpaceX “blast[ed] a commercial satellite into orbit in the wee hours” of the morning, making it possible for anyone awake at that time to “watch all the action live online,” according to Mike Wall in the Space.com article, “SpaceX Rocket to Launch Commercial Satellite Early Tuesday: Watch Live.” The August 5 mission featured a Falcon 9 rocket launch carrying AsiaSat 8, a telecom satellite, for Hong Kong-based Asia Satellite Telecommunications.
For that mission, SpaceX used the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, but the company soon hopes to have its own devoted launchpad east of Brownsville, Texas. The project has brought in more than $20 million in government funds. According to Justin Buchanan of Business Week in his article, “Elon Musk Puts SpaceX Launchpad in Texas and Gets Government Money,” posted August 5, 2014, “Local officials believe the launch site … will create 500 jobs over a decade and require as much as $100 million in capital investment.”
Musk noted that along with the job creation that the site would promote, the launch location would “inspire students” and “attract tourists,” Buchanan quoted. Given the American public’s declining interest in space missions, getting students and tourists—and the general public—excited about space flight could be one of the keys in successfully reaching Musk’s goals of manned interplanetary travel.
Do you think commercial space flight is the future of space travel? Tell us in the comments.