Over dinner with friends the other evening I was asked what were the projects I most admired. For sure, SpaceX is one, I replied to blank faces all round. Huh? What’s that?
It amazes me that SpaceX is so little known and rarely talked about in the UK when, to my mind, it is one of the most impressive commercial endeavours on the planet. SpaceX’ purpose is to shift stuff off the planet and into space; something it has already achieved dozens of times, and it is an astonishing success story.
The brainchild of Elon Musk, the Californian overachiever who made his fortune founding PayPal, SpaceX is a private enterprise that has launched more than 20 space missions. Private is the really interesting word here; just think for a moment of the dollars, risk and sheer ambition involved in setting up a business to transport cargo – and eventually people – safely into space.
As well putting its customers’ satellites into earth orbit, SpaceX has flown several missions to resupply the International Space Station, delivering food, air, water, fuel, spare parts and scientific supplies to the six brave inhabitants of the ISS orbiting high above our heads. I witnessed one of these launches at Cape Canaveral back in April 2014 and – even from the safe viewing point 3 miles away – the engineering ambition, the scale of the investment (and risk!) and the spectacle of the blast off, was truly breathtaking.
SpaceX is now developing manned spaceflight capability. Testing of the crew capsule, designed to carry up to 7 astronauts, is already at an advanced stage. Here is a clip of last week’s test of the launch escape system which is designed to save the lives of the crew in a launch emergency. The first real manned launch is scheduled for next year and I don’t doubt they will succeed.
SpaceX’ ambition doesn’t stop there. It has also tried – albeit unsuccessfully so far – to re-use some of its very expensive rocketry, in particular, the 40m high 1st stage, by returning it to earth in a controlled fashion and landing it vertically on a ship! Even after a bottle or two of wine, I don’t think my dinner guests quite believed this but as you can see for yourselves on YouTube these guys have some very serious intent. OK, so that particular test didn’t work out but you can sense the ambition. Audacious or what?
Keep up with SpaceX on Twitter, Instagram, Vine or whatever is your app of choice and maybe, like me, you will become hooked on this amazing story.