The Space Shuttle — the re-usable “space truck” that brought us the modern space age and served us so well for three decades — is no more. In one of their more bone-headed decisions, the powers-that-be in Washington both ended the Shuttle program and, under the current administration, ended the program that was to replace the Shuttle program.
That has left us in a position that only a few years ago, would have been thought unthinkable: The world’s greatest and most advanced space-faring nation no longer has any means to send an astronaut into orbit. We can’t even launch supplies to the largely American-built International Space Station.
The result is that for years now what little we’ve been able to do has been by means of renting rides from our former enemies and current rivals, the Russians. And with the rising Russian revanchism under former KGB chief Vladimir Putin, we are facing the loss of even that: Putin has recently made it very plain that he resents even the little token opposition the U.S. has whimpered to Putin’s militaristic threats against his neighboring countries, and in retaliation Putin has stated that the space rides for Americans may soon come to an end.
A Dragon to the rescue?
What we should do, and some private entrepreneurs are already working on, is build new, privately-developed spaceships. And the current leader of the pack is entrepreneur CEO Elon Musk’s spaceship venture, SpaceX, whose Dragon spacecraft has already made its first successful delivery of cargo to the International Space Station. Dragon is an unmanned spacecraft and it executed without a hitch.
But now this week, in what we will someday see as a milestone in history, SpaceX came to Washington, D.C. to show off Dragon’s successor, the Dragon V2 — and this one will carry up to seven passengers as well as cargo, just as the old Space Shuttle did. But Dragon V2 will offer much more: It will soft-land vertically anywhere on Earth, without need for the long runways and complex special landing facilities needed by the Shuttle. And its turn-around time for next flight will be a matter of days rather than months, in part because it does not have expensive throw-away parts, such as the huge, expensive booster rockets and giant fuel tank the Shuttle discarded into the sea each time it flew.
With the Dragon V2 a new flight is mostly just “gas and go”: re-fuel the recovered Falcon Heavy launch rocket (also a SpaceX product, which when ready will be the largest rocket in the world), re-assemble the capsule atop the rocket at its launch base in New Mexico, and blast off again. Not quite a “Hertz Rent-a-Rocket,” but a big step in the right direction.
So what does it look like? Have a look.
Now look at the cockpit. Does it look familiar? Note the large touch screens, what look like very touch-friendly controls, the embedded graphics and text on the screens. Doesn’t it look like what a spaceship would look like if Apple designed spaceships? Maybe it should be called “iRocket.”
If you doubt that, have a look at what the old Space Shuttle’s instrument panel looked like. User interfaces have come a long way in the last three decades, haven’t they?
So does the name “Elon Musk” sound familiar?
The CEO of SpaceX is Elon Musk, a name that may sound familiar to many Internet devotees. And indeed it should sound familiar: Elon Musk was the founder and still head of PayPal, the ubiquitous Internet-payment service that undergirds much of modern Web commerce.
But Musk is even more than that: He is also the founder and still CEO of Tesla Motors, the revolutionary car company that is finally putting electric cars into the mainstream with exciting high-end cars that are setting both sales and performance records with unprecedented technology.
Musk also funded and developed much of the basic engineering for a super-high-speed “Hyperloop” vacuum-tunnel train that would zip people from Los Angeles to San Francisco at speeds over 600 mph, at times approaching the speed of sound. Then, to everyone’s surprise, he announced that he had too many irons in the fire and he opened to the world all the intellectual property of the project, including all the patents. In effect, he gave away all that had been developed to anyone who would build it, which Musk estimated would take about $6 billion for a passenger-only version, or $7.5 billion for a version that would also transport vehicles. (It must be said that estimates for projects like this are usually low, so the real price is likely to be considerable higher. Still, compared to other mass high-speed alternatives, the price is not outlandish.)
If the foregoing makes Elon Musk sound like some kind of near-mystical, hyper-rich visionary genius, you’re just about right. In fact Elon Musk is the prototype on which is based the character Tony Stark of the Iron Man movie series (though as far as I know Musk does not have a flying super-suit or do battle with mega-villains). Still, he’s certainly a larger-than-life personality who is making a very big difference in the world while still remaining unknown to 99% of the world’s population. It will be interesting to see what he’s got in mind next.