Elon Musk Just Gave The Most Revealing Look Yet at The Rocket That’ll Fly to The Moon And Mars

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A stunning insight into the future of space travel.

Elon Musk has provided several new, rare, and telling glimpses into how his rocket company, SpaceX, is building a spacecraft to reach Mars.

On September 17, Musk announced that SpaceX would fly Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa around the moon on the company’s Big Falcon Rocket or BFR. During that event, Musk showed off new renderings of the launch system, along with a few photos of the work going on inside SpaceX’s spaceship-building tent at the Port of Los Angeles.

These were the first new details about SpaceX’s rocket construction we’d gotten since April, when Musk posted a photo that revealed SpaceX was building the spacecraft using a 40-foot-long, 30-foot-wide cylindrical tool.

“SpaceX main body tool for the BFR interplanetary spaceship,” Musk said on Instagram.

SpaceXMoon1(Elon Musk/SpaceX; Instagram)

Aerospace industry experts say the newly released pictures reveal new information about how SpaceX is constructing the BFR and how quickly the project is moving.

“It’s unusual for companies and even government agencies that develop rockets to reveal much about the hardware they’re developing. But what Musk wants to do is to bring along the public with him,” Marco Cáceres, a senior space analyst at the Teal Group, told Business Insider. “He lives and breathes this company. So when he has hardware that he’s excited about, he just wants to show it and be as transparent as possible.”

What the new BFR fabrication images reveal


The BFR is designed to be a 39-story launch system made of two parts: a 180-foot-tall spaceship, from tip to tail, and a 230-foot-tall rocket booster (which the ship rides into orbit). Musk has said the spaceship is the “hardest part” of the system to build, so SpaceX is prototyping it first.

Musk’s vision is to launch the spaceship into orbit and refuel it while it circles Earth. Then the ship can fire up its engines, fly through space, land on Mars, and later rocket off of that planet and return to Earth. Because it’s designed to be 100% reusable, the system will supposedly be able to do all of this many times.

Musk said in 2016 that SpaceX is building the system “primarily of an advanced carbon fibre,” which can be stronger than steel at one-fifth of the weight.

One of the new images Musk shared on September 17 shows a ribbed, spoked tube with a worker inside. This is the inside of the cylindrical tool that Musk first revealed in March; it’s called a mandrel. Robots wrap layer upon layer of carbon-fibre tape around the mandrel to form a 30-foot-wide “barrel section” of the spaceship.

SpaceXMoon2Inside a mandrel that SpaceX uses to build carbon-fibre-composite sections of the Big Falcon Rocket. (SpaceX)

The carbon fibres are soaked in a glue-like epoxy, then heated so that the composite cures and hardens.

The photo below, which Musk also revealed on September 17, shows a barrel section that’s been cured and freed of the mandrel. The rounded dome on the left appears to be part of a propellant tank also made of carbon-fibre composites.

SpaceXMoon3A completed carbon-fibre-composite barrel section of SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket. (SpaceX)

Many carbon-fibre tapes are woven fabric. But Steve Nutt, a professor of chemical, aerospace, and mechanical engineering at the University of Southern California, told Business Insider that he thinks SpaceX engineers are wrapping the mandrel in an unwoven version of the tape.

Nutt said such unwoven tapes provide the “highest stiffness and strength” because they don’t easily kink or wrinkle (which can weaken a structure). They also maximise the amount of super-strong carbon fibre relative to epoxy, he said.

Nutt said it’s “quite clever what they are doing.”

Carbon fibre must be squeezed while it’s heated and cured, so Nutt thinks SpaceX may be using very large plastic bags and sucking out the air to compress the layers of tape. But he’s unsure how SpaceX is actually heating the parts.

“Structures are getting too big to oven-cure, so they might be using so-called ‘heat blankets,'” he said.

‘He’s shoving this in NASA’s face’

Cáceres, who’s studied the aerospace industry for decades, said the new photos highlight a project of epic proportions.

“This is probably the biggest challenge that I’ve seen since the Saturn V days, in terms of engineering,” Cáceres said, referring to NASA’s Apollo-era moon rocket. “Nothing I’ve seen is remotely this size.”

Even New Glenn, a reusable heavy-lift rocket being built by mega-billionaire Jeff Bezos’ rocket company Blue Origin, doesn’t compare, he said.

SpaceXMoon4Yusaku Maezawa stands inside a completed carbon-fibre-composite barrel section of SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket. (Yusaku Maezawa/Twitter)

Revealing these images forces the public – and potential investors – to take Musk seriously, Cáceres said.

Cáceres previously estimated that the BFR development program could cost about $US5 billion, and Musk gave the same estimate when he announced Maezawa’s role in SpaceX’s moon tourism mission.

“He’s looking for investors because he’s not Jeff Bezos, who could probably do this on his own,” Cáceres said. “Musk is not as wealthy. He can look for investors by building stuff and showing it off. If you see how much hardware he has and how big it is, people will say, ‘Yeah, this is a serious program.'”

If the 2023 moon mission aboard BFR – a project Maezawa calls #dearMoon -is successful, that would send a big message to NASA about SpaceX’s capabilities.

“This doesn’t look like a stunt,” Cáceres said. “It looks like a trial run.”

SpaceX has gotten billions of dollars in NASA funding through the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, which aims to partner with private companies to build a system for launching astronauts to the International Space Station. So it would make sense for Musk to try to get NASA’s attention (and money) again for the development of BFR.

Right now, NASA is building a giant, one-use launcher called Space Launch System, which may cost more than $US20 billion to develop and priced at about $US1 billion per launch. Meanwhile, SpaceX’s BFR may cost the company tens of millions to refuel and launch once the spacecraft is operational.

“In a way, he’s shoving it in NASA’s face and saying, ‘You guys are crazy to build this rocket,'” Cáceres said of Musk and SLS, respectively.

“Elon Musk is a very charismatic figure and a showman. He understands that, for many years, NASA has been trying to create public excitement about space exploration, and they always try to recreate the excitement around Apollo. But they’re not successful.”

Musk, on the other hand, may be beating NASA at that goal.

“The thing Musk is building looks like it’s out of a science fiction movie. He wants to get the public excited, and that excitement can attract investors, ” Cáceres said.

If SpaceX does not attract NASA funding for BFR development, then the company might rely on space tourism, contracts with government and commercial interests to launch cargo and satellites, and profits from SpaceX’s planned constellation of 12,000 internet-providing satellites, called Starlink, to pay the ambitious program’s bills.

“People can’t say, ‘Musk is all talk.’ He has accomplished so much in a short amount of time,” Cáceres said.

“When I was at trade shows 10 years ago, when I asked Boeing and others about SpaceX, they rolled their eyes and said, ‘They aren’t going to be around very long.’ Now SpaceX is the major player in the industry.”

Elon Musk Says SpaceX’s BFR Design Is Inspired by Tintin Comics

BFR spacex

Elon Musk unveiled a new design for SpaceX’s BFR rocket on Thursday, and he’s taking inspiration from a famous series of Belgian comics. The CEO confirmed on Twitter that the new design “intentionally” bears resemblance to the vehicles depicted in The Adventures of Tintin, the whimsical series that depicts Tintin and his friends embarking on far-flung trips to find new stories.

On Thursday, SpaceX announced the BFR rocket will also ferry a private passenger around the moon.

The BFR was first announced at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, in September 2017. SpaceX plans to send two BFRs to Mars in 2022, followed by four more in 2024. Two of the latter four will fly the first humans to Mars, with the other four providing supplies so they can refuel and return home.

The redesign shared with the moon announcement bears similarities to rockets as featured in Hergé’s comic series. The 1950 comic Destination Moon shows a red-and-yellow checkered rocket with three giant fins on the base, elevating the rocket above the ground, which Tintin and his friends use to visit the moon and explore a secret government project. The story continued in 1953 comic Explorers on the Moon.

The comics, published nearly two decades before NASA’s 1969 lunar visit, come surprisingly close to predicting Neil Armstrong’s famous words. Tintin exits the craft in the comic and, making his first steps on the dusty surface, proclaims: “This is it! I’ve walked a few steps! For the first time in the history of mankind there is an explorer on the moon!”

The new BFR design was depicted in a Twitter post below:

The new ship looks notably different from the IAC renderings:

The BFR on Mars
The BFR as depicted at IAC 2017.

Eagle-eyed followers immediately clocked some similarities between the giant-finned new craft and rockets from the Tintin comics:

Musk confirmed the similarity over Twitter:

It’s not the first time Musk has made reference to Tintin. In February, he dubbed two of SpaceX’s satellites Tintin A and B. The two crafts are part of a plan to provide internet service in space, using a staggering 4,425 satellites starting next year. The goal is to bring internet access to remote places that lack the infrastructure to support connectivity.

Musk’s new Tintin ship will play a pivotal role in a historic mission. SpaceX plans to reveal more details of the mission on Monday:

SpaceX has signed the world’s first private passenger to fly around the Moon aboard our BFR launch vehicle – an important step toward enabling access for everyday people who dream of traveling to space. Only 24 humans have been to the Moon in history. No one has visited since the last Apollo mission in 1972. Find out who’s flying and why on Monday, September 17 at 6pm PT.

SpaceX Teases Announcement About Private Moon Trip

BFR flying around the moon.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX will update the public on Monday on its deal to send a human on a trip around the moon, it announced Thursday night. The lunar recreational mission will be launched on BFR, the in-development rocket designed to launch humans to Mars. The journey will mark the first time a person on a private spacecraft will fly around the moon.

SpaceX hyped a webcast of the big reveal this way:

SpaceX has signed the world’s first private passenger to fly around the Moon aboard our BFR launch vehicle – an important step toward enabling access for everyday people who dream of traveling to space. Only 24 humans have been to the Moon in history. No one has visited since the last Apollo mission in 1972. Find out who’s flying and why on Monday, September 17 at 6pm PT.

The announcement marks a key development in plans to send private citizens into space. SpaceX announced in February 2017 that two private citizens had paid for a lunar orbit trip, which would take them deeper into space than any human has ever ventured before. The original announcement claimed the passengers would enter space in the Crew Dragon capsule, lifted into orbit on board the Falcon Heavy rocket.

The mission was scheduled for some time after the capsule took the first NASA astronauts to the ISS, a milestone scheduled for around April 2019. That plan seemed in doubt, however, when Musk told reporters the day prior to the Falcon Heavy test launch in February that the rocket probably wouldn’t send people into space.

“It looks like BFR development is moving quickly, and it will not be necessary to qualify Falcon Heavy for crewed spaceflight,” Musk said in February of this year after the Falcon Heavy demonstration launch. “We kind of tabled the Crew Dragon on Falcon Heavy in favor of focusing our energy on BFR.”

The BFR is a gargantuan rocket, first detailed at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, in September 2017. Where the Falcon Heavy has a liftoff thrust of around 2,500 tons, placing it as the most powerful rocket in operation, the BFR has a thrust of 5,400 tons. SpaceX plans to use all this power to send two cargo rockets to Mars in 2022, before sending two further cargo rockets alongside two manned rockets to the red planet in 2024. The reusable design of the rockets means the humans can use the planet’s resources to collect together fuel and return on the same rocket.

While the company’s private spaceflight plans have been relatively quiet since the February announcement, SpaceX officials indicated that the company still planned to move ahead with its historic flight. SpaceX representative James Gleeson said in June that the company is “still planning to fly private individuals around the moon, and there is growing interest from many customers.”

The company is expected to complete the first hop test firing of the BFR next year. A 95,000-gallon liquid oxygen tank arrived at the Boba Chica facility in Texas in July, expected to support propellant-loading operations during vehicle tests. The tank will sit alongside a 600-kilowatt solar array and two ground station antennas. Company president Gwynne Shotwell has previously indicated that Boca Chica will support these initial tests.

Elon Musk Will Put Humans on Mars Much Sooner Than We Think, Astronaut Says

The first space race of the 21st century has Mars as its finish line. While victory is still likely years, even decades away, Elon Musk and SpaceX have made the most tangible progress toward the red planet, and one person with plenty of first-hand expertise in all things space thinks the company could get us to Mars sooner than anybody would have guessed.

British astronaut Tim Peake, who has spent 185 days aboard the International Space Station, offered his thoughts on the future of Martian exploration at a recent event organized by the charity Aerobility. He said the first humans on Mars will likely get there in about two decades, if government agencies remain the main drivers, but there’s a chance private spaceflight could accelerate that timeline.

“Humans on Mars, I think will be the late 2030s,” said Peake. “That’s what the government space agencies and the International Space Exploration Group are working towards. It could be that some of [these people’s] programs bring that date forward. But, the late 2030s would be a realistic time frame. What could throw a big bowling ball through all that is commercial spaceflight.”

Musk and SpaceX aren’t the only players in the commercial field, of course. There are Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic, Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin, and more conventional private contractors for government projects, like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. But Musk’s company has raced ahead of its competitors in demonstrating the actual practical usability of its rocket technology, especially after last month’s Falcon Heavy launch.

“We have seen the ambitions of people like Elon Musk,” said Peake. “There are several other companies that also have ambitions to send people to Mars. I think that we will end up working very closely with these companies in public-private partnerships when we eventually go to Mars.”

That idea of public-private partnerships is an intriguing one. For his part, Musk has spoken exclusively about SpaceX when detailing his plans for Mars. A partnership with NASA on a Mars mission — perhaps one where NASA astronauts and terrestrial support staff conduct a mission using one of SpaceX’s planned BFR craft to get to the red planet — is certainly conceivable, but it’s not the plan right now.

Still, such a plan could prove the most effective way to combine SpaceX’s cutting-edge rocket tech with NASA’s institutional experience, but that’s not the plan right now. It’s also possible that NASA or another space agency — like Peake’s own European Space Agency — could team with another private spaceflight company, assuming Musk plans to go it alone.

The point is, though, that all those possibilities suggest an acceleration of government agencies’ current plans for spaceflight. If the set target is the late 2030s, it’s possible market competition could knock several years off that, especially if SpaceX can find the same success with the BFR that it did last month with the Falcon Heavy.

SpaceX Hid a Second, Secret Payload Aboard Falcon Heavy, And It Sounds Amazing

Designed to last for millions of years.

Elon Musk’s personal Tesla might have gotten all the headlines during SpaceX’s historic rocket launch last week, but the Falcon Heavy also carried a second, secret payload almost nobody knew about.

Stashed inside the midnight-cherry Roadster was a mysterious, small object designed to last for millions (perhaps billions) of years – even in extreme environments like space, or on the distant surfaces of far-flung planetary bodies.

Called an Arch (pronounced ‘Ark’), this tiny storage device is built for long-term data archiving, holding libraries of information encoded on a small disc of quartz crystal, not much larger than a coin.

621 spacex tesla secret payload arch(Arch Mission)

According to Arch Mission Foundation, the California-based nonprofit behind the technology, these Archs could “preserve and disseminate humanity’s knowledge across time and space, for the benefit of future generations”.

The Arch looks like a shrunk-down DVD or Blu-ray, but its potential for data storage goes way beyond any optical discs you have in your home.

The technology, developed by physicist Peter Kazansky from the University of Southampton in the UK, can theoretically hold up to 360 terabytes of data, about the same amount as 7,000 Blu-Ray discs.

621 spacex tesla secret payload arch(SpaceX)

But even more impressive than the data capacity is the physical longevity of the medium – the first two discs, called Arch 1.1 and Arch 1.2, are said to be two of the longest-lasting storage objects ever created by humans, theoretically stable for up to 14 billion years, thanks to ‘5D data storage’ inscribed by laser nanostructuring in quartz silica glass.

The Arch 1.2 disc currently making its way through space on Musk’s Tesla Roadster at a cruising speed of some 12,908 km/h (8,021 mph) has been loaded up with Issac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy – a seminal sci-fi classic, similarly concerned with the concept of preserving human knowledge and culture in a vast, unforgiving Universe.

It’s a mission perfectly aligned with the goals of the Arch’s developers, who have named this maiden disc launch the ‘Solar Library’.

“The Solar Library will orbit the Sun for billions of years,” explains co-founder Nova Spivack.

“Think of it as a ring of knowledge around the Sun. This is only the first step of an epic human project to curate, encode, and distribute our data across the Solar System, and beyond.”

621 spacex tesla secret payload arch(SpaceX)

Subsequent launches are planned for 2020 and 2030, with the ‘Lunar’ and ‘Mars’ Arch libraries intended to send curated backups of human knowledge to the Moon and Mars – with the latter disc hoped to serve as a useful aid for colonists on the Red Planet, helping them to ‘seed’ a localised internet on Mars.

If that all sounds pretty ambitious, the ultimate goal is even more fantastic.

“By eventually connecting the Arch Libraries, and the Arch storage devices they contain, through a decentralised read-write data sharing network that spans the Solar System, we can begin to grow and share a collective decentralised library of everything humanity learns, on every planet in our Solar System, and even beyond, as we spread,” Spivack says.

Wow. Okay, so it’s one heck of a moonage daydream, but if you don’t believe it, ask yourself this: did you ever expect a Tesla Roadster would be orbiting the Sun in 2018?

Is SpaceX Being Environmentally Responsible?

Falcon Heavy’s flashy space car may not have been the best idea—for Mars


SpaceX via Twitter

SpaceX has now launched the most powerful spacecraft since the Apollo era—the Falcon Heavy rocket—setting the bar for future space launches. The most important thing about this reusable spacecraft is that it can carry a payload equivalent to sending five double-decker London buses into space—which will be invaluable for future manned space exploration or in sending bigger satellites into orbit.

Falcon Heavy essentially comprises three previously tested rockets strapped together to create one giant spacecraft. The launch drew massive international audiences—but while it was an amazing event to witness, there are some important potential drawbacks that must be considered as we assess the impact of this mission on space exploration.

But let’s start by looking at some of the many positives. Falcon Heavy is capable of taking 68 tonnes of equipment into orbit close to the Earth. The current closest competitor is the Delta IV heavy which has a payload equivalent of 29 tonnes. So Falcon Heavy represents a big step forward in delivering ever larger satellites or manned missions out to explore our solar system. For the purposes of colonizing Mars or the moon, this is a welcome and necessary development.

The launch itself, the views from the payload and the landing of the booster rockets can only be described as stunning. The chosen payload was a Tesla Roadster vehicle belonging to Space X founder and CEO Elon Musk—with a dummy named “Starman” sitting in the driver’s seat along with plenty of cameras.

This sort of launch spectacle gives a much needed public engagement boost to the space industry that has not been seen since the time of the space race in the 1960s. As a side effect this camera feed from the payload also provided yet another proof that the Earth is not flat—a subject about which Musk has previously been vocal.

The fact that this is a fully reusable rocket is also an exciting development. While vehicles such as the Space Shuttle have been reusable, their launch vehicles have not. That means their launches resulted in a lot of rocket boosters and main fuel tanks either burning up in the atmosphere or sitting on the bottom of the ocean (some are recovered).

This recovery massively reduces the launch cost for both exploration and scientific discovery. The Falcon Heavy has been promoted as providing a cost of roughly US$1,300 per kg of payload, while the space shuttle cost approximately $60,000 per kg. The impact this price drop has for innovative new space products and research is groundbreaking. The rocket boosters on this test flight had a controlled and breathtakingly simultaneous landing onto the launch pad.

So what could possibly be wrong with this groundbreaking test flight? While visually appealing, cheaper and a major technological advancement, what about the environmental impact? The rocket is reusable, which means cutting down the resources required for the metal body of the rocket. However, the mass of most rockets are more than 95% fuel. Building bigger rockets with bigger payloads means more fuel is used for each launch. The current fuel for Falcon Heavy is RP-1 (a refined kerosene) and liquid oxygen, which creates a lot of carbon dioxide when burnt.

The amount of kerosene in three Falcon 9 rockets is roughly 440 tonnes and RP-1 has a 34 percent carbon content. This amount of carbon is a drop in the ocean compared to global industrial emissions as a whole, but if the SpaceX’s plan for a rocket launch every two weeks comes to fruition, this amount of carbon (approximately 4,000 tonnes per year) will rapidly become a bigger problem.

The car test payload is also something of an issue. The vehicle has been scheduled to head towards Mars, but what has not been made clear is what is going to happen to it afterwards. Every modern space mission is required to think about clearing up after itself. In the cases of planetary or lunar satellites this inevitably results in either a controlled burn-up in the atmosphere, or a direct impact with the body they orbit.

Space debris is rapidly becoming one of the biggest problems we face—there are more than 150 million objects that need tracking to ensure as few collisions with working spacecraft as possible. The result of any impact or degradation of the car near Mars could start creating debris at the red planet, meaning that the pollution of another planet has already begun.

Space Junk
Space Junk 

However, current reports suggest that the rocket may have overshot its trajectory, meaning the vehicle will head towards the asteroid belt rather than Mars. This is probably going to mean a collision is inevitable. The scattering of tiny fragments of an electric vehicle is pollution at the minimum—and a safety hazard for future missions at worst. Where these fragments end up will be hard to predict—and hence troublesome for future satellite launches to Mars, Saturn or Jupiter. The debris could be drawn by the gravity of Mars, asteroids or even swept away with the solar wind.

What is also unclear is whether the car was built in a perfect clean room. If not there is the risk that bacteria from Earth may spread through the solar system after a collision. This would be extremely serious, given that we are currently planning to search for life on neighbouring bodies such as Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa. If microorganisms were found there we may never know whether they actually came from Earth in the first place.

Of course, these issues don’t affect my sense of excitement and wonder at watching the amazing launch. The potential advantages of this large-scale rocket are incredible, but private space firms must also be aware that the potential negative impacts (both in space and on Earth) are just as large.

Why Elon Musk’s Tesla Will Last Thousands of Years in Space, Scientifically

After at least seven years of planning and preparation, on Tuesday, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy will finally make its maiden voyage. Though the aerospace company will attempt to land several of its boosters back on terra firma, its payload will continue along on a one-way ticket toward Mars — but how long will its sojourn around the Red Planet last?

Falcon Heavy's Tesla heading toward Mars

Let’s clear something up right off the bat: Elon Musk’s midnight cherry Roadster isn’t actually going to Mars. It’s not even going to be orbiting Mars in the way that the red planet’s two moons do. Instead, the car will be placed in a heliocentric orbit, meaning it will revolve around the sun, just like all the planets in our solar system.

“The Falcon Heavy will achieve this by using three rockets, with the first two separating after stage one of the launch,” Ben Thornber, an associate professor at the University of Sydney, writes in The Conversation. “The final rocket will then lift the Tesla Roadster up into space, where it will enter a highly elliptical orbit between the Earth and Mars. Without external interference, Falcon Heavy will remain in this orbit for thousands of years.”

The specific kind of heliocentric orbit Musk’s roadster will be traveling on is called Trans-Mars injection, meaning it will orbit the sun in a manner that will bring it close to Earth and Mars again and again. This could mean that the Tesla will be placed several million miles away from Mars, but it’ll still get to snuggle up to the planet — and ours — many times.

Of course, getting the Roadster to its final destination is the hard part. First and foremast, the Falcon Heavy has to not blow up on ascent, which is harder than it sounds. Then, it has to traverse Earth’s Van Allen belt, which is full of high-energy particles waiting to whack the crap out of it. Then, the Tesla has to cruise in deep space for about six hours to reach the finish line.

It’s a lot, but if SpaceX pulls this off, it’ll make history — again.

“We estimate it will be in that orbit for several hundred million years, or maybe in excess of a billion years,” Musk announced in a press conference yesterday.

There’s only one way to find out whether or not Musk’s Tesla will make it to Mars — watch the launch on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. Eastern.

Why Elon Musk’s SpaceX launch is utterly depressing

Elon Musk is right: silly and fun things are important. But some of them are an indefensible waste of resources


Falcon Heavy, world’s most powerful rocket, successfully launches – video

On Wednesday, two things happened. In Syria, 80 people were killed by government airstrikes. Meanwhile in Florida, Elon Musk fired a sports car into space. Guess which story has dominated mainstream news sites?

The much-anticipated launch of Musk’s Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful every launched by a private company, went off without a hitch. Musk successfully sent his cherry-red Tesla roadster hurtling toward Mars, launching what a CNN commentator called “a new space age”.

Musk expects the rocket and car to orbit the sun for hundreds of millions of years, though some experts have speculated that it will disintegrate within a year. The event attracted phenomenal publicity: at one point, 2.3 million viewers were watching the event’s livestream, making the rocket launch a masterstroke of advertising for Tesla.

Meanwhile, in Syria, where hundreds of thousands of refugees may be forced to return to unsafe homes amid “global anti-refugee backlash”, an anti-government activist said despondently that he is no longer sure why he bothers to videotape the effects of bombing, since nobody ever pays attention: “I don’t know what the point is.” The UN human rights coordinator for Syria pondered what level of violence it would take to make the world care, saying that they are “running out of words” with which to try to describe the crisis.

There is, perhaps, no better way to appreciate the tragedy of 21st-century global inequality than by watching a billionaire spend $90m launching a $100,000 car into the far reaches of the solar system.

Musk said he wants to participate in a space race because “races are exciting” and that while strapping his car to a rocket may be “silly and fun … silly and fun things are important.” Thus, anyone who mentions the colossal waste the project involves, or the various social uses to which these resources could be put, can be dismissed as a killjoy.

But one doesn’t have to hate fun to question the justification for pursuing a costly new space race at exactly this moment. If we examine the situation honestly, and get past our natural (and accurate) feeling that rockets are really cool, it becomes hard to defend a project like this.

A mission to Mars does indeed sound exciting, but it’s important to have our priorities straight. First, perhaps we could make it so that a child no longer dies of malaria every two minutes. Or we could try to address the level of poverty in Alabama that has become so extreme the UN investigator did not believe it could still occur in a first-world country. Perhaps once violence, poverty and disease are solved, then we can head for the stars.

Many might think that what Elon Musk chooses to do with his billions is Elon Musk’s business alone. If he wanted to spend all his money on medicine for children, that would be nice, but if he’d like to spend it making big explosions and sending his convertible on a million-mile space voyage, that’s his prerogative.

But Musk is only rich enough to afford these indulgent pet projects because we have allowed gross social inequalities to arise in the first place. If wealth were actually distributed fairly in this country, nobody would be in a position to fund his own private space program.

Yet even on the theory that there’s no moral problem with frittering away hundreds of millions of dollars, and inequality is fine, there’s another reason we are permitted to care about what Musk does. A great deal of his fortune is not actually his own: it’s ours.

Musk’s empire is fueled by billions of dollars in government subsidies. The Los Angeles Times revealed in 2015 that Musk’s companies benefit from “grants, tax breaks, factory construction, discounted loans and environmental credits”, plus the tax credits and rebates that are granted to consumers for buying his products.

The average household income of a Tesla purchaser is in the multiple hundreds of thousands, yet the federal government pays people $7,500 to buy them through tax credits, and many states offer their own cash handouts. Because we’re all giving Elon Musk money, what he chooses to do with that money is very much our business.

Elon Musk is right: silly and fun things are important. But some of them are an indefensible waste of resources. While there are still humanitarian crises such as that in Syria, nobody can justify vast spending on rocketry experiments. That point was made plain in 1970 by poet Gil Scott-Heron, in his record Whitey On The Moon, which criticized the US for spending millions to send men on a pointless moon adventure while the country’s inner cities languished:

“I can’t pay no doctor bills

But whitey’s on the moon

Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still

While whitey’s on the moon.”

Whitey may not have gone back to the moon recently. But his sports car is now in space.


NASA Safety Panel Raises Concerns Over SpaceX and Boeing Spacecraft

 Safety Concerns

The goal of NASA’s commercial crew transportation program is to allow astronauts to be routinely transported into orbit by private spacecraft; slated to be developed and operated by Boeing and SpaceX.  Initially, these missions were to begin last year, but the program’s trips to the ISS have now been pushed to between 2019 and 2024. The shift in timeline comes in light of recent concerns expressed by NASA’s outside safety panel regarding the spacecraft. Depending on the outcome of the panel’s investigation, the new date to be set for the missions could extend even later than 2024.

The safety panel raised questions on Thursday about the dangers of the program as it stands now. The group’s annual report made mention of several major issues, including those with unconventional rocket fuel systems as well as micrometeoroids and orbital debris (MMOD) that have the potential to bombard and harm the capsules.

There are mandates that inspections must be conducted in-orbit, which allows the team to watch for and mitigate collision damage and reduce the associated risks. However,  the safety panel agreed that at this point in time, “the likelihood remains that the providers will not meet all” of their requirements.

NASA managers will not only have to take these issues into account, but the uncertainty around additional issues as well. From there, they’ll have to determine if the statistical risk is low enough to allow the project to move ahead. As the panel wrote in their report, we are “at a critical juncture in human spaceflight development,” and it is essential that NASA “maintain a sense of urgency while not giving in to schedule pressure.”

Delayed Launch

While Boeing has not yet commented on the report, a spokesperson from SpaceX told the Wall Street Journal that the company is “revising a fuel-system component and methodically demonstrating the safety of its overall fueling process.” In reference to the revised timeline, the company stated that together, the Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon capsules are “one of the safest and most advanced human spaceflight systems ever built–and we are set to meet the additional milestones needed to launch our demonstration missions this year.”

But could the goal of creating increased, cost-effective transport to low-Earth orbit be too ambitious? While there was an overall positive tone to the safety panel’s review, they urged NASA to reconsider the original launch date with these safety concerns in mind. Though the agency had hoped for the earlier launch date, if the risk is deemed to be high, the safety of the crew would necessitate continued efforts to update and revise the spacecraft’s designs and plans for the missions.

NASA’s current statistical probability regarding fatal accidents is one per every 270 flights. While everyone at the agency works tirelessly to avoid any fatalities that could occur accidentally, even minor risks associated with spaceflight have the potential to be deadly. Luckily, the safety panel outlined specific guidelines that detailed where the companies could focus their energy to most improve.

For example, according to their report, SpaceX still needs to address potential hazards posed by the helium tanks used to maintain the pressure of supercooled liquid oxygen in the Falcon 9. This is especially critical, as issues with such containers caused dangerous explosions in two of their rockets within a two-year period.

Both companies appear to be dedicated to remedying the underlying issues that the safety panel brought up, but it remains to be seen whether or not the apparent need for additional testing and modification will push the launch of the program even further. Whether or not there is a delay, it was made clear by the safety panel that the issues will need to be addressed as soon as possible to ensure crew safety. It might seem like step back, but rectifying these issues now and taking steps to improve safety could lay the groundwork for a future with safe, frequent, and accessible space travel.

How the whalers of Moby-Dick could help put humans on Mars

In the 45 years since the Apollo 17 astronauts placed the last boot prints on the Moon, Mars has loomed as the next target for human exploration of the solar system. NASASpaceX and other spacefaring enterprises have repeatedly declared their intentions to go there in the coming years and decades. A crewed mission to Mars will demand expertise from a wide range of disciplines, including physics, engineering, psychology and geology. Less obvious, it will also require us to scrutinise any antecedents that could help us to prepare for one of the most difficult undertakings in history.

Perhaps nothing better prefigures this most daunting and ambitious of quests than the whaling industry of the 18th and 19th centuries. The South Seas fishery hit its peak between roughly 1820 and 1860. Powered by an insatiable desire for whale oil and other whale-based commodities such as umbrellas, corsets and perfume, the industry was at the forefront of the American, British and French economies until petroleum was discovered mid-century. Whaling developed its own maritime practices, its own culture, even its own language and art forms.

The parallels between the whaling industry and deep human spaceflight are striking. Voyages to the South Seas usually lasted between two and four years, mirroring almost exactly the timeframes associated with a roundtrip journey to Mars. Whalers worked in confined conditions aboard their floating factories, often going months at a time without setting foot on land, prefiguring the cramped space capsules being considered for Mars missions.

Finally, whalers and their Mars-bound counterparts share a place in the great pantheon of human exploration – individuals who accepted steep risks in the name of what Ishmael, the most famous fictional whaler in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), calls ‘honour and glory’. In that way, whaling voyages more closely parallel the anticipated Mars missions than other superficially similar confined endeavours, such as serving on a submarine crew or working on a remote oil platform.

One important lesson from the South Seas whaling industry is the need to prepare for a paradoxical combination of routine tedium and moments of exceptional danger. The art of scrimshaw arose to keep shipmates occupied during the long hours of waiting for a whale sighting. But when action arrived, killing sperm whales for a living was one of the deadliest professions of the 1800s. Consider this terrifying passage from an article in Harper’s Magazine in 1854:

The harpooner, especially, is liable to be entangled in coils of the line as it runs out after a whale is struck, and to be then dragged beneath the surface … Yet more appalling is the calamity which occasionally befalls an entire crew, when the struck whale is diving perpendicularly. It has happened repeatedly on such an occasion, that the line has whirled round the loggerhead, or other fixture of the beat; and that in the twinkling of an eye, almost ere a prayer or ejaculation could be uttered, the boat, crew, and all, have been dragged down into the depths of ocean!

In an extraordinary example of whaling’s dangers, a sperm whale attacked and sunk the Essex whaleship commanded by Captain George Pollard, Jr of Nantucket, leaving the crew stuck in three small whaling boats in one of the most remote stretches of ocean. Through quick thinking and perseverance, many of the Essex’s crewmembers made it to safety. Much like the astronauts of the near-catastrophic Apollo 13 mission, these whalers faced an unexpected calamity, and overcame it. Space agencies would be wise to ensure that individuals chosen to go to Mars have intense training in problemsolving without assistance from people back on Earth.

The Essex crew survived in part because of their high level of professionalism and camaraderie. Even in the direst of circumstances, they (mostly) maintained order. As Owen Chase, the first mate of the Essex, described in 1821: ‘We agreed to keep together, in our boats, as nearly as possible to afford assistance in cases of accident, and to render our reflections less melancholy by each other’s presence.’

Should a comparable calamity come to pass aboard a Mars spaceship, crewmembers should follow Chase’s example. Astronauts are often praised for their individualism and love of adventure. For Mars missions, those qualities will need to be tempered with compassion and patience.

Whalers often came from disparate cultures, stuck together for years with limited food, sanitation and entertainment. Nevertheless, they formed strong bonds with their co-workers. Whaling-ship officers carefully cultivated a sense of shared purpose and reward. Crewmen were tied together, rowed together, and died together. As Hester Blum, one of the foremost scholars of whaling culture, writes in The View from the Masthead(2008): ‘[T]he presence of a system, a transparent set of rules for conduct, was presumed to help prevent seamen from becoming overwhelmed by the natural environment and its frequently fatal indifference to the presence of humans.’

NASA and other spacefaring enterprises must develop comparable systems for Mars-bound vessels. What is perhaps most important is that those systems provide astronauts with dedicated alone time. Whalers achieved this in part by rotating shifts atop the masthead or crow’s nest of the ship. Manning the masthead gave whalers a break from their comrades, while also serving the purposes of the voyage. Mars mission-planners would do well to find analogous practices for their astronauts, to keep action-oriented individuals occupied yet not always socially engaged during their immense stretches of downtime.

One tactic employed by whalers was cerebral observation of the natural world. They became attuned to the weather, the condition of the water, and the behaviour of the whales. Whalers also actively consulted books and wrote their own narratives. According to Blum: ‘Mariners at rest spent time mending clothing, overhauling gear damaged by use or weather, writing letters home, reading, and telling stories or yarns.’

It’s safe to say that virtually all of world literature will be available to future Mars travellers in digital form. But mission planners might take further inspiration from whalers, and encourage astronauts to write about their experiences while on the mission. Maintaining real-time accounts would provide individual records of one of humanity’s most incredible undertakings. It would also fill low-intensity gaps during the long flights to Mars and back, and bolster the sense of accomplishment.

For whalers, the ocean voyages were not just a means of livelihood but a key to their identities. As Ishmael boasts in Moby-Dick: ‘Our grand master is still to be named; for like royal kings of old times, [whalers] find the head-waters of our fraternity in nothing short of the gods themselves.’ Large segments of the public were likewise fascinated by the process that brought whale-oil and its wonderful light to their homes. One can imagine that interest in the first Mars-bound voyages will surpass that of whaling, perhaps to a level hitherto unseen by human beings.

This time around, hopefully, the motivation will lie more with human glory and less with human profit, but much of the underlying spirit will remain the same. Through determination, daring and an intense focus on a shared goal, the first human beings will step on the Red Planet and join Ishmael’s exclusive fraternity.

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