A winter line-up that represents the real value of SpaceX

Photo rights: SpaceX
A Falcon 9 rocket launches. Photo rights: SpaceX

“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred.  A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.”

-Elon Musk

Earlier this week TechCrunch published a story on the valuation of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), a pioneering space transport and rocket technologies company, being in the region of $10 billion.  Shortly after this, SpaceX refuted the claim.  Responding to Re/code.net on the matter, SpaceX Communications Director John Taylor noted: “SpaceX is not currently raising any funding, nor has any external valuation of that magnitude or higher been done. The source in this report is mistaken.”.

In 2012 the company was estimated to be worth somewhere in the region of $2.4 billion. Certainly since then SpaceX has expanded its profitable collection of contracts (a collection to which both private satellite communications companies and NASA alike, belong) and in so doing built its reputation as a forerunner in the private space industry.

Naturally, SpaceX is worth a massive amount of money and one could speculate on the extent of SpaceX’s scope for growth, in relation to the market it currently occupies, the competitors whom it continues to undercut, or the avenues for future products and services its surely to emerge into.  But it is not the revenue or valuation of SpaceX, as high as they may be, that sets it apart from its competitors.  Looking ahead to the end of this year alone, we can anticipate feats from the company that will set a precedent for the future of rockets, likely for centuries to come. With two flights this winter in particular SpaceX will excel itself in way that beyond any quantitative measure by becoming the private company that re-defined space travel.

How? Well it’s not about getting up there, it’s about coming back down…

First, let’s consider some context: SpaceX began operating commercial launches in 2010 and consequent to a string of successes, the eleventh consecutive successful flight of a Falcon 9 rocket took place just a few weeks ago, on August 8 of this year.  With every successful mission SpaceX is proving itself as a reliable, albeit relatively young, company pushing the boundaries for cheap, more efficient space travel an industry where the stakes for failure are so very high. Not surprisingly, the launch manifest for Falcon 9 in the coming twelve months is stacked – while the next launch is scheduled for later this month, ten further rockets are scheduled for launch before the year is out.

Needless to say, rocket flight is extraordinarily expensive.  This largely due to the ditching of rockets after their use just once. First stage rockets, fall to their fate in the ocean, while in the case of stage two rockets, they simply left to burn up as they re-enter the atmosphere.  For decades, the mindset was that engineering a reusable rocket was  technically infeasible, and the cost of design and manufacture of such a rocket would outweigh any savings from recovery to the extent that it was not a viable endeavour.  There are several limitations on rockets as well as a necessity for new technologies that make this the case (a topic we hope to post on soon) – suffice to say, the challenge of recovering a rocket is immense. Scratch that, the challenge was immense…but it was one that SpaceX embraced with characteristic audacity and seem to have cracked.

Within the winter launch line-up are two flights (in October and December) where it is not so much the launch itself or the payload that are noteworthy, but rather the landings that are likely to catch attention of the media, space enthusiasts, and funders alike. The mission plans of these Falcon rockets feature the first ever attempts to land operational reusable rockets on solid ground.

Space X’s Reusable Launch System Development Program has been running since 2012 and aims at establishing the technologies that will allow for full and rapid reusability of both first and second stage rockets of the Falcon class.  This goal has been at the forefront of SpaceX’s ambitions for some time and perhaps the principle reason for it likely to remain leaders in the space industry for the foreseeable future.  It is from this program that that the Grasshopper and Falcon 9 Reusable Development (Falcon 9-R Dev) vehicles  derive – rockets that are providing tantalising glimpses into the future of space travel.

The Grasshopper. Photo rights: SpaceX

The Grasshopper constitutes a first stage Falcon 9 booster augmented with a rigid landing gear that has been used to test low-altitude vertical landing techniques after controlled descents from up to 744m (SpaceX, October, 2013). The Grasshopper was a pilot project, demonstrating important systems and engine throttling techniques required for soft-landing of Falcon 9 first-stage rockets.

Grasshopper testing has now been replaced with Falcon 9-R Dev which has facilitated vertical landing testing from higher altitudes. Falcon 9-R Dev is twice the size of the Grasshopper, an important point since this allows for testing of some of the critical aerodynamics of controlled descent that come into play with an object the shape and size of a operational Falcon 9.

Soft-landing of Falcon 9-R Dev at its testing site in Texas after descent from altitudes building up to 1000m has proven very successful, landing with precision accuracy comparable to a helicopter (see, video above).  Subsequent iterations of vertical landings have led to planned development away from rigid landing legs, towards a landing gear composed of four lightweight aluminium carbon fibre legs that can be deployed shortly before landing but that otherwise are tucked away along the outer casing of the first stage rocket.

Falcon 9-R Dev testing has run in parallel to several commercial Falcon 9 launches that served as test-beds for both the landing gear and several other critical vertical landing technologies upon re-entry, having completed their primary missions.  For instance, earlier this year a first stage rocket fitted with landing legs simulated a soft vertical landing over water following delivery of its payload into orbit, ORBCOM 6. Meanwhile important engine relights (itself a massive achievement) and stabilisation of the rocket into a controlled, vertical vector has also been achieved during descents from orbit (see the mission overview from SpaceX of Falcon 9 delivering the CASSIOPE satellite).

A Falcon 9 lies in wait; folded landing legs can be at the base of the first stage tank. Photo rights: SpaceX

Altogether the data and experiences acquired from the reusability program and the successes themselves are highly encouraging; so much so that in early 2013 SpaceX Founder, CEO & Chief Designer Elon Musk stated that reusable technologies and equipment will be phased into production of all Falcon 9s built henceforth, rockets to to bear the title Falcon 9-Rs – a sure sign of how SpaceX’s future fleet of rockets will be operating.   

“We have all the pieces necessary to achieve a full recovery of the boost stage.” (Elon Musk, SpaceX Founder, CEO & Chief Designer)

Such is the history of the development of vertical take-off/vertical landing rockets and their recovery at SpaceX.  It’s been a exciting period of testing over the last few years, and we are now just months away from the landing of a commercial Falcon 9 rocket on solid ground. The actual landing pad is likely to be a solid barge platform secured out at sea.  But this shouldn’t detract from what the moment will represent: nothing less that a game-changer in rocket flight – demonstrating the technical feasibility of extending the life of rockets from one-use only, to vehicles capable of launching into orbit, delivering payloads, re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, performing a vertical landing and ultimately being recovered intact.  Maintenance checks and re-fuelling aside, the Falcon 9’s architecture essentially renders them ready for many more cycles of launch, return and re-use.

SpaceX President and COO Gywnne Shotwell stated last year in interview, that if all goes to plan, reusable Falcon 9s could bring launch prices down to something between $5 to $7 million. Compare that to the current price-tag of around $60 million per launch, and it is easy to see where we’re headed.  Falcon 9 rockets are already the cheapest in the industry – reducing this by the order of magnitude predicted by SpaceX paves the way for a rapid expansion in space travel.  Of course, upon seeing this technology in action, it’s unlikely SpaceX’s competition will be able to stomach continuing to operate according their own existing one-time launch models. But therein lies the heart of it – SpaceX are already marginalising their industry peers with launch costs considerably lower than their closest competitors Ariane 5 and Proton. Should they follow suit with SpaceX’s model for reusable rockets (which seems the only economically viable option) these companies will face the challenges of designing their own reusable systems, and all the while SpaceX will be ploughing upwards and onwards.

As soon as early 2015, we can look forward to the inaugural launch of Falcon Heavy – what will be by far the most powerful launch vehicle operating in the world.  With Falcon Heavy comes the unprecedented capacity for Space X to carry up to 53,000kg of cargo into orbit (the Falcon 9 carries 13,150kg to low Earth orbit).  That’s more than twice as much as the world’s current largest payload of a little under 23,000kg by Boeing’s Delta IV Heavy!  Needless to say, these developments aren’t only going to facilitate travel into Earth’s orbit and secure safe, fast delivery of the ever increasing number of satellites required for developing the world’s communications capacities. Reducing costs, fine-tuning reusability and improving accessibility into space will bring about a host of possibilities that push the boundaries of the space industry and exploration far beyond where we are now.

With the ardent mission of establishing rocket systems operating at a fraction of the figure previously expended by satellite and other space faring industries by way of developing novel technologies of their own, SpaceX appear to be single-handedly ushering in a new dawn in space travel – a claim that might seem bold, but considering what we can expect later this winter, taken with all its implications, seems quite appropriate.

So SpaceX’s actual valuation may be unknown for the time being. But just as there are countless, unimaginable opportunities to stem from an emerging market as the fourth frontier begins to truly open up, so it is that the trajectory of SpaceX’s position and true value in the future of space industries is equally incalculable.