Only a few months ago, astrophysicist and all-around-science-ninja, Neil deGrasse Tyson, said it was “delusional” to think SpaceX could lead the space frontier.
Neil: I love you, but you couldn’t be more wrong.
On Friday, after landing a 737-sized rocket stage on an autonomous drone ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, SpaceX made clear that they are now the unequivocal leader in space exploration. Elon Musk fielded questions for 30 minutes after the historic landing, flanked by NASA officials that might as well have been potted plants.
“When do you plan to refly the stage?” ”
“Will it be a paying customer or a test flight?”
“When will we see the first flight of Falcon Heavy?”
“When are you going to announce your Mars architecture?”
Reporters peppered Musk with questions. But it wasn’t just information they were after: the room seemed assembled to hear what was in store for the future.
At one point, Musk commented that Falcon Heavy would have the highest thrust of any rocket flying until SLS is operating—the behemoth rocket NASA is currently scraping together from aging contracts and even older hardware. It felt like a crumb tossed NASA’s way compared to SpaceX’s smorgasboard of radical innovations.
Musk smiled at the notion that the rocket landed on a “barge.”
“It used to be a barge. When we added engines and control systems and everything, I think it’s… fair to call it a ship.” he said. The engines, he pointed out, are each capable of rotating 360 degrees, so the ship can maintain position.
The drone ship—called Of Course I Still Love You—garnered more interest from the press than the mice onboard the Dragon capsule, or the inflatable Bigelow Aerospace contraption that will soon be attached to the International Space Station.
“I think it’s another step toward the stars.”
One reporter asked how SpaceX was going to secure the rocket for its two-day journey back to shore, genuinely nervous it would tip over. “There’s potentially some heavy winds coming in,” Musk said, “Once the rocket’s safe, the crew’s going to go on there, and then we’ve got these steel shoes that we put over the landing feet, and weld it to the deck.”
The technology that SpaceX is building for the high seas—ocean going robot ships—captivated the audience, while the $200 billion taxpayer-funded orbiting science outpost with seven humans aboard scarcely garnered a mention.
“What does [reusability] mean for the future of SpaceX and for the future of spaceflight?” asked another reporter. As CEO of the fastest growing aerospace effort since Apollo, Musk could’ve underlined the impact on SpaceX’s bottom line, or riffed on how it positions SpaceX to compete in totally new ways in the worldwide launch marketplace, or discussed what a strive it was for American innovation. Instead, he paused and said, simply: “I think it’s another step toward the stars.”
There is no longer any question who the intellectual leader in space exploration is. It’s SpaceX.
It’s their 5,000-strong workforce, wearing “Occupy Mars” t-shirts on launch days and chanting “U-S-A” when the fruits of their labor fly to orbit, turn around, and land on a postage stamp in the middle of the ocean. It’s their CEO, who commands the attention of space journalists and insiders alike when he opens his mouth and out comes the future.
As the conference grew to a close, a young reporter asked whether the progress in reusable launches had readied Elon to announce his architecture for colonizing Mars.
“Now is not the time to give a full update. I am planning to give a talk at the International Astronautical Congress, which will be in Mexico this year in September. And I thought that would be a good venue to describe what we think would be a good approach…for establishing a city on Mars. I think it’s going to sound pretty crazy.”
Yes. It will sound crazy. But, it will no longer be crazy.