Saturday, 15 July 2017

Funding a Mars mission

All this will take money, and that's where SpaceX's commercial space business comes in. The company's mission backlog contains roughly 70 missions that have yet to launch worth some $10 billion. Though SpaceX's finances aren't publicly available, a handful of internal documents obtained by the Wall Street Journal earlier this year showed that the company, though profitable, has been operating with razor-thin margins in an effort to keep costs down.

But that backlog and revenue potential could soon change as the company settles into a faster launch tempo, breaks into new markets, and expands its revenue streams. For instance, starting next year, SpaceX plans to begin deploying a constellation of nearly 4,500 satellites that will blanket the world in Internet connectivity, a business the company reportedly believes will bring in $30 billion in revenue by 2025.

Meantime, given its ability to consistently undercut its launch industry rivals on price (the current list price for a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is $62 million, roughly half what the competition often charges), SpaceX's dominant position within the commercial—and now military—launch markets is relatively secure for the time being.

SpaceX's string of recent successes hasn't come without adversity, however. In September of last year, one of its Falcon 9 rockets exploded on the launchpad during pre-flight fueling, incinerating a costly satellite payload along with the launch vehicle. The accident grounded SpaceX's fleet for several months while engineers sought to isolate the cause, marking the second time the company has had to suspend launches after an accident.

Despite that setback, SpaceX has managed to thrive over the past 12 months. It has launched six successful missions since returning to flight in January. With a seventh launch slated for June 1, the company is on pace to launch more than a dozen missions this year—potentially quite a few more than the one-per-month it was averaging in 2016.

It has also brought more than 10 of its first stage boosters safely back to Earth after launch, normalizing a feat that seemed insurmountably difficult just a few years ago. It has successfully refurbished and reused one of those boosters on a second mission, a development that could drastically impact the economics of space launch going forward. And it has successfully broken into the lucrative military launch market, sending its first classified payload for the U.S. Air Force skyward earlier this month.

Key breakthroughs

The latter two developments are particularly relevant to SpaceX's future ambitions for one simple reason: spaceflight is expensive. By breaking into the military satellite space—the one segment of the satellite launch market SpaceX had yet to disrupt—the company has a new $1.9 billion market from which it can draw revenue.

Reusability on the other hand could drastically reduce the costs associated with each launch, allowing SpaceX to improve its margins while cutting its prices further. "The degree to which they have visibly demonstrated return and reuse, that's quite significant," Carissa Christensen, CEO of aerospace consultancy Bryce Space and Technology, says. "That's been a long-targeted industry objective, and SpaceX is the first to do it commercially."
The second payload to ride atop a recovered and refurbished rocket booster will launch next month, and the company could begin seeing significant cost reductions as a result of its reusable rocket technology within two or three years.

"I think SpaceX arguably is positioning itself to be the partner of choice for any federally funded or internationally-backed Mars mission."
-Carissa Christensen, CEO of Bryce Space and Technology
"If you can recover those engines and they're fine, you can save an awful lot of money," Caceres says. "By the time you get to maybe 10 of these kinds of missions, it becomes routine. You start to realize some cost savings, which allows you to start noticeably dropping the price of your missions. And if you can get the price down to 30 or 35 million [dollars] per mission, nobody else can come close to that."

A trillion-dollar budget

What does all this have to do with sending astronauts to Mars? For one, such an interplanetary mission will be extremely expensive, likely measured in trillions rather than hundreds of billions of dollars, Caceres says. One way to enable such a mission is to reduce the cost of space access, spurring economic activity in orbit and beyond which in turn will help create economies of scale that drive costs down further, a point to which Musk has spoken at length.

SpaceX has already succeeded in this regard, cutting the average cost of launch in half with its $62 million Falcon 9 rocket and forcing others in the industry like United Launch Alliance to slash their own prices while also investing in newer, less-expensive launch technologies. If savings from its reusable rocket technology begin to manifest themselves as expected, Caceres says, "theoretically SpaceX could be launching dozens of times per year and at prices maybe one-fourth their competitors'." - Extracted from Elon Musk is rushing to beat NASA to Mars, perhaps during Trump presidency - PLS CLICK HERE TO READ THE WHOLE ARTICLE.

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