Have Rocket, Will Travel: The Coming Age of Intercontinental Spaceflight
A boom in the global space industry will eventually see people flying anywhere on Earth in less than an hour. And that’s just the beginning.
IN THE 1930s, the notion that, within decades, people would be flying to any point on the globe in less than a day was preposterous. And yet today, you can jump on a plane in Sydney and be in Los Angeles in 14 hours; and every year, more than three million people fly between New York and London in just seven hours.
Most of us probably take this for granted. But in 1935, it took 12 and a half days to fly from Brisbane to London. Even by 1947, thanks to aviation advances after World War II, flying Sydney to London took four days.
Today, there are more than 9,700 planes with 1.3 million passengers in the sky at any one time. Six million people are flying somewhere daily; that’s more than the entire population of Barcelona or Los Angeles in the air, every day. Two things made this possible: rapid advances in aviation technology, which helped bring costs down; and the rising demand to fly as ticket prices fell, bringing more and more people to air travel.
And it’s happening again: this time, in space travel. And it’s a revolution that’s largely thanks to billionaire enfant terrible Elon Musk, of Tesla fame.
In just 14 years, his private rocket company SpaceX has disrupted the global launch market by doing things long thought impossible: reusing rockets on a regular basis by having boosters return to the pad and land vertically; creating more powerful engines cheaper, and faster, than ever before; and passing those savings on to customers.
Between 1970 and 2000, it cost an average US$18,500 per kilo to launch anything into space. In 2008, SpaceX launched the world’s first privately funded rocket, Falcon 1, charging $9,930 a kilo to put payload into orbit; a 46% fall in launch prices. Today, this has fallen another 72% to just $2,720 per kilo, thanks to its improved Falcon 9 rocket. This has driven other aerospace companies to redesign their rockets and find savings.