Why is SpaceX so far ahead?

This article was originally published in the Bristol Post and written by Ashley Dove-Jay, PhD.

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Rocket engineering is hard. Typically, one in twenty rockets fail. Why? Because roughly 95% of a rocket at take-off, in terms of its weight, is fuel. The other 5% is the rocket itself and whatever it is launching into space. The more safety structures and systems within the rocket design, the less weight available for the spacecraft, satellite, or astronauts being launched into space. Rocket engineering is a razor-fine balancing act between the conflicting objectives of reliability, cargo capacity, and cost.

Then why am I sitting here swilling a glass of Laphroig, watching a re-run of SpaceX landing their Falcon 9 rocket, whilst I write this? Surely the extra landing hardware and fuel required renders the rocket useless by chewing right through that weight budget for cargo?

What makes this all possible is that the Falcon 9 rocket is made in its entirety under one roof by one private company with one leader. Sheet metal literally enters the building from one end and rockets exit out of the other to the launch pad.

All previous rockets of this kind have been made by dozens of independent entities scattered over a country or continent collaborating under the direction of a bureaucracy-laden government burdened by ever-changing politics. SpaceX is playing a different game.

Historically, inefficiencies in the management of making rockets have persistently manifested themselves through the poor design of rockets. Rockets of the past have been so ineffectively designed, it has been impossible to integrate a landing system into their architecture. We’ve just been letting our rockets burn up in the atmosphere or crash into the ocean after they’ve launched their payload.

Imagine how expensive a flight ticket on an Airbus A380 would be if you had to throw away the aircraft after a single flight; £340,000. This, until recently, has been the current state of the rocket industry. This is the single issue that has unbearably throttled the growth of the space industry. This is no longer the case.

This “5% budget” isn’t a strict law defined by physics; it is simply the number that has consistently popped out at the end when governments have built rockets. SpaceX has already at least doubled its available weight budget for cargo.

What’s more, with several Falcon 9 rockets having landed safely, they actually have used rockets they can study. That’s a door no other entity has been able to open! SpaceX is now dismantling and studying every part of those rockets in an effort to further improve their design. Trimming fat in the rocket structure, where it is realised it is not actually needed, will further increase SpaceX rocket capabilities.

The current cost of placing one kilogram into Low-Earth orbit using the European Space Agency Ariane 5 rocket is about £16,500. The Ariane 6, scheduled to start launches in 2022, is looking to reduce this to about £6,000 per kilogram.

SpaceX currently charge about £3,000 per kilogram with their Falcon 9 rocket. Once they’ve truly established a rocket reusability program in the coming few years, this should reduce to about £1,300 and £500 per kilogram with the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets respectively.

Murky geo-politics aside, it seems ludicrous that the European Space Agency is moving forward with this £3 billion development of the single-use Ariane 6 rocket. Why would anyone want to buy a ticket on a vastly outdated rocket that has no proven flight heritage and costs at least four times more than the state-of-the-art?

If you think SpaceX is far ahead of the rest of the game, you’ve seen nothing yet.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Ashley Dove-Jay has a PhD in aerospace engineering from the University of Bristol and is a space engineer at Oxford Space Systems with a broad background in the space arena.

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