What next for groundbreaking SpaceX?

This week, eccentric billionaire Elon Musk’s pioneering SpaceX achieved another milestone in space exploration, becoming the first private company to successfully fly astronauts into space and, crucially, bring them back in one piece afterwards. Bankrolled by Musk and the US Government, the company is breaking new ground in spaceflight at a rapid pace.

Why do SpaceX’s innovations matter?

We’ve been going to space for decades – and honestly the whole thing has been a huge disappointment compared to the space-faring interplanetary civilisation promised in the 1960s. Where did it all go wrong? The boring answer is cost. Spaceflight is still extremely expensive – the glitzy glamorous days of the space race are long past, and national space organisations (of which NASA is still the field leader) are flying on a wing and a prayer. Musk’s corporation promises to massively reduce the cost of spaceflight, therefore simultaneously expanding and cornering the space launch market. More generally, Musk hopes to reinvest these profits (and hopefully drum up a few more billion dollars from private investors and the US government) into funding for his ambitious upcoming projects.

What will we see in the immediate future?

Over the next couple of years we can expect to see SpaceX take up more of the existing launch market, routinely shuttling astronauts to the International Space Station alongside their existing resupply flights and satellite launches. Meanwhile, SpaceX will continue work on their next big projects: Starlink, a highly ambitious project to beam superfast internet across the globe; and Starship, their next-generation rocket that Musk envisions as the key to his dreams of Mars colonisation.

What is Starlink?

SpaceX plans to eventually field a constellation of up to 42,000 small orbiting satellites that will supply an internet connection to every corner of the Earth, undercutting expensive (and in many places non-existent) conventional broadband. The project has been lambasted by scientists and stargazers worried about obscured views and ‘space junk’, but the company is pressing ahead regardless, and has set a perhaps overambitious goal of 2021 for rollout in Europe.

What about Starship?

Meanwhile, Musk’s engineers have been squirrelled away in rural Texan township Boca Chica, working on the next big thing in human spaceflight: the colossal Starship rocket. As powerful as NASA’s Saturn V Moon rocket and standing as tall as the Glasgow Tower (and with any luck, better built), the rocket will be capable of facilitating NASA’s planned return to the Moon, and beyond. Crucially, the rocket aims to be the first fully reusable super heavy-lift launch vehicle, with a perhaps doubtful estimate from Musk of as low as $2 million per launch (compare to the Saturn V’s inflation-adjusted cost of $1.23 billion per launch). If SpaceX can achieve a cost-per-launch similar to Musk’s estimate, the opportunities opened up for manned missions to Mars and beyond are boundless.

What’s Musk’s end goal?

Musk has made no secret of his desire to see a permanent manned settlement established on Mars alongside missions throughout our solar system. He envisions unmanned Starship flights to the red planet to set up infrastructure as early as 2022, followed within the next few years by the first human colonists. It’s hard to believe SpaceX will pull this off – but the company has already reached heights few believed it could, and they may still yet surprise us further.