On February 6, 2018, a new rocket, Falcon Heavy, blasted off from Cape Canaveral for the first time. It carried a strange payload, a 2008 Tesla Roadster owned by the same billionaire who owns the rocket company. Falcon Heavy's maiden flight was a huge success and is now among the world's most powerful rockets.
While sending a car into space might seem gimmicky, it was inspired. The launch showed everyday items, and everyday people, could have access to space. It demonstrated that something new and different was happening. The company, SpaceX, has very grand goals. Not only is it opening space for everyone, it aims to make human life multi-planetary, and expects to do it soon.
Recently there has been a quiet revolution going on that will change the future for everyone. Private space companies are racing to build the first fully reusable spacecraft. They can launch and land at the same place, carrying huge amounts of cargo or large numbers of people. Most importantly, it can be done cheaply, quickly, and safely. This represents a fundamental shift in space travel.
Huge progress was made in 2020, largely unnoticed while our attention was understandably elsewhere. SpaceX is testing a new huge rocket dubbed "Starship". While not designed to travel to the stars, not yet anyway, it will provide mass transport to space, to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
It will land back at its launch site, or "spaceport", and be ready to fly again. Starship has engines that can be fuelled using elements found on Mars and has more space for people than the whole of the International Space Station.
By making Starship reusable, it reduces the cost of access to space. Launching 500 Starships would cost the same as launching a single Space Shuttle. The current Starship prototype flew up to 12.5 km in December last year. It passed all its tests, except the last one - it landed too quickly.
The explosion was spectacular, but the importance of the flight is difficult to overstate. Another attempt is due any day now, with seven more Starships under construction. The plan is, once operational, to have 1000 of them.
Carrying 100 people per trip, Starship will take humans back to the Moon in a couple of years, take the first people to Mars after that, and then further out in the Solar System. Going to the Moon takes about three days, a nice length of time for a holiday, while Mars takes several months, the same as sailing a ship across the world. SpaceX shows us how blue sky thinking and innovation can reap massive rewards.
By having a positive vision, thinking big and having a crack, accepting failure, remaining optimistic and trying again; we can change the world.
Australia is well placed to play a big role in this, and in the new future it provides, if it chooses to. As for the Tesla Roadster, in October it silently coasted past the orbit of Mars and will continue to drift in space for millions of years. That is unless it ends up in a museum, as testament to its role in this first step of a new era for humanity.
- David Weldrake is an astrophysicist based in Canberra who assists with the Mount Stromlo Observatory Outreach Program