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Friday, April 8, 2016

The Falcon has Landed!

After several less than successful attempts, Space X finally landed a Falcon 9 first stage on their recover ship. This is another historic first for Space X and humanity. Some of you may wonder why this is such a big deal. Mainly it's because the rocket costs millions to build and the fuel only costs a couple hundred thousand to burn. Most of the cost of a space launch is the hardware, and we have always thrown that away. It makes putting satellites into orbit very expensive. Having the ability to reuse the hardware will drop that cost like a rock into a black hole. Okay, that's a bit much in the hyperbole department, but it will go a long way towards making commercial space flight viable.

In my opinion, it's the first step toward the next economic revolution. A bit over a century ago humans figured out how to build big things quickly and, more importantly, cheaply. We call that discover the industrial revolution. A few decades ago we began learning how to make things smaller and much more efficient. We started turning from mechanical devices to electronic devices. Perhaps that's not as significant historically as going from agrarian to industrial, it is nonetheless not hyperbole to say the electronic revolution has shaped our society in ways every bit as significant as the industrial revolution.

Now that we are deep, deep into the electronic revolution, the question has become, "What's next." It's not the information revolution. That's really nothing new. It's simply something made much easier to manipulate by the electronic revolution like the industrial revolution made clocks easier to produce. Information is still used in basically the same way as it was 100 years ago, just like clocks perform the same function today they did 500 years ago. So no, information is not the next revolution.

Revolutions must fundamentally change the nature of a society, and I'll add for the better. Now you can argue all you want about the industrial revolution being a catastrophe for our planet, and I will not argue with you. But from the human perspective, it has made the life of almost every human being on the planet immeasurably better. For example, before the industrial revolution more than half of all humans born died before reaching adolescence. That's how hard life was. I don't think you can say the same for the electronic revolution, but it has certainly made our lives easier in many ways. So what does that next?

In my book, that's space. From supporting an orbiting infrastructure to actually living and producing things in space, I see that as the next great revolution in human existence. There are many companies keen on acquiring the resources even one small asteroid (of the correct type of course) contains. A moon base is not out of the question, and is certainly a lot easier to establish than a Mars base will ever be. Instead of pulling our resources out of a struggling earth, we could get them from outside our own ecosystem. We could stop shitting in our own nest.

Of course that can't happen over night. It likely won't happen in the time left to me on this rock we call home. And it will never happen IMO if the simplest of launches cost tens of millions of dollars. It's not economically feasible. This landing today changes that equation. Now, there is a long way to go yet. It has to be done reliably and frequently. But this is the proof of concept. It's the what-are-we-waiting-for moment.

Now, do I believe for one moment it'll transform the naysayers overnight? No, that'll take more successful landings. But it should get the majority of people who want to pursue space industry, and have the means, moving a little faster. Before I get too much older I want to see an asteroid return mission and not by NASA. I'd like to see a moon base before I die, and not by NASA. They can do it too mind you, but NASA really isn't the future. We've grown beyond that. I believe space belongs to all of us, not just one agency or nation. But hey, I'm an optimist. YMMV.

Oh, and to pull this back to reality a bit more, there is another question you may be asking. Why do they have to land on a barge? After all, they landed a first stage on the ground successfully the first time just a few months ago. Why not just do that every time? Well, it has to do with the Delta V needed to get to a given altitude. In order to get the Dragon Capsule to the International Space Station, or a satellite into geosynchronous orbit, the first stage has to burn well out over the Atlantic. And it has to go very fast. Those two things together are what make Delta V. If  the required Delta V is too high, the rocket can't return to it's launch point with the fuel left in it. So it has to land at sea. And now it has for the first time. Congratulations Space X; big bites tonight!

(Updated 4/10/16)

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