We Need More Companies Like SpaceX
by Ed Sawicki - January 20, 2021
I'm writing this on Inauguration Day. A few hours before President Biden took the Oath of Office, SpaceX launched a rocket that delivered the next batch of Starlink satellites to orbit. Why talk about SpaceX on a day like today?
Because past administrations have done far too little for the environment and far too little to reduce overcharging by government contractors. Yet, over the past decade, SpaceX has succeeded in reducing the impact of space launches on the environment and in dramatically reducing the cost of launching government satellites.
Prior to SpaceX pioneering the reusability of their Falcon 9 rocket booster, most rocket launches from the United States resulted in everything except the payload falling into an ocean. There are thousands of rocket parts littering the floor of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and many of them are not small. It's unclear just how much toxic chemicals have made it into ocean water as a result.
The number of U.S.-launched rockets that have ended up in our oceans is at least 5,120.
For this morning's launch of the Starlink Mission, SpaceX used a Falcon 9 rocket booster that has been used seven times before, as the above graphic shows. It landed on the drone ship successfully. This means eight rocket boosters (along with their nine engines each) are not lying on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean because of this reusability—a SpaceX innovation.
It's estimated that this reusability has prevented over 50 rocket boosters and 450 engines, so far, from being dumped into the oceans. Those numbers increase with every launch.
UPDATES: As of January 17, 2023, 264 Space-X rockets have been recovered. This means 264 rocket bodies and their 9 engines each (2,376 engines total) are not lying on the bottom of the oceans.
For SpaceX launches of U.S. government payloads, it means that our government is not paying for a new rocket booster each launch. Additionally, this SpaceX innovation has forced the traditional companies that provide launch services for the government to lower their prices significantly and to look into adding reusability to their products as well. SpaceX and reusability have saved U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars.
The manufacturing cost of a Falcon 9 booster is about 60% of the price of a launch. The percentage is higher for a Falcon Heavy launch, where the manufacturing cost is about 80% of a launch. So SpaceX can afford to undercut their main competition, the United Launch Alliance (ULA), by significant amounts. The ULA has essentially been a monopoly, charging the government about $442 million per launch for national security payloads.
The United Launch Alliance (ULA) is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Space and Boeing Defense, Space & Security.
SpaceX prices for commercial launch services are about $50 million per launch—somewhat more for national security launches because of additional requirements/assurances. Once SpaceX started bidding on national security launches, ULA lowered their prices to something closer to $300 million—still substantially higher than SpaceX.
In 2017, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said, “The benefit we're seeing now is competition. There are some very exciting things happening in commercial space that bring the opportunity for assured access to space at a very competitive price.”
The Aquatic Rocket Graveyard
How many U.S.-made rocket parts are littering the oceans? It's at least 5,120 rocket bodies. Most of them are medium to large rockets, each having multiple stages. Each stage has one or more engines, so the number of rocket engines on the ocean floor is probably over 20,000. Some of those engines are huge, such as the F-1 engine used on the Saturn V booster from the days of the moon landings. The photo below shows the size of a F-1 engine. The Saturn V booster had five of them.
There are also smaller sounding rockets launched from places like Wallops Island in coastal Virginia and Kodiak Island in Alaska. These are usually single-stage rockets with small engines. These launches were not kept track of like the larger rockets were, so there are likely thousands more of them not reflected in the 5,120 count. Not all of these end up in the ocean.
Rocket bodies break up when they hit the ocean surface and scatter in pieces. Heavier pieces like engines tend to sink close to the impact point and lighter pieces flow with the currents for a while before settling on the ocean floor. Other pieces, such as fairings, separate from the rocket once it reaches the vacuum of space and fall to the ocean— sometimes to land. SpaceX is now recovering its fairings so they can be reused as well, further reducing the cost of launches and ocean pollution.
Our government frequently cannot act in our best interest because of the immense control corporations and corporate money exert. It's good to have private sector companies doing their part to force change with better ideas and through real competition.
Does this mean that we should be happy that Elon Musk (the founder and CEO/CTO of SpaceX) makes his often asinine Twitter posts? Absolutely not.