The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Saturday December 3rd

Column: SpaceX and the future of space travel

From Playalinda Beach at Canaveral National Seashore, visitors watch a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Photo courtesy of Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS
Buy Photos From Playalinda Beach at Canaveral National Seashore, visitors watch a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Photo courtesy of Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

If you saw a mysterious "parabola of light" across the North Carolina sky three weeks ago, it was likely due to SpaceX’s recent Falcon 9 rocket launch. 

The Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket designed by SpaceX for the "reliable and cost-efficient transport" of satellites, and is one of many space ventures the company is currently working on. 

More recently, SpaceX tested a prototype of its Starship named SN11, a rocket intended to take people to Mars, and it managed to reach an altitude of 6.2 miles before exploding into bits and pieces of metal debris in mid-air. This was the fourth high-altitude test for Starship. 

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk attributes this explosion to a small methane fuel leak that caused a fire on one of their engines, which in turn burned to other parts of the rocket. 

It’s expected to fail test launches when working on a project as intricate as space travel, but this failed launch indicates that any journey to Mars carrying humans is unlikely to be achievable in the near future as quickly as Musk anticipates. 

Musk has always been known to be ambitious in his timelines. His pure optimism is evident in his statement that he remains “highly confident” that SpaceX will be able to land humans on Mars by 2026, potentially even 2024. 

However, getting to Mars is not something that can be done on our own time. SpaceX will have to follow a specific time frame for sending rockets to Mars. They have to follow when the Earth lines up with Mars — every 26 months — which will be difficult. Space projects are so convoluted that it’s hard to strictly adhere to a timeline. 

It’s also important to note that even if humans safely land on Mars, there are an abundance of biological factors to consider about the potential degradation of the human body on a planet’s environment that’s so unfamiliar to us. 

Plus, testing out things like the ability to refuel, a life support system and a re-entry system has not yet been finalized, and will take a long time to perfect.  

So, while Musk remains hopeful, it’s also very likely that he will have to extend his timeline just as he did with his other projects like Tesla and The Boring Company. 

Musk’s aggressive timelines match up with his extremely determined goals for space travel. 

He aims to make Starship fully reusable, unlike the Falcon 9 rockets that are only partially reusable. This means that ideally, after SpaceX has successfully landed humans on Mars, Starship will become a rocket that operates similarly to a commercial plane that takes flights, where fuel is the only consistent and major cost. 

In addition to Starship, SpaceX has announced the world’s first all-commercial astronaut mission to orbit Earth, on the Dragon spacecraft. Jared Isaacman, founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments, is donating three seats to the general public to receive commercial astronaut training and board the Dragon. If successful, it would “enable access for everyday people who dream of going to space.” 

It’s safe to say that one should remain tentative about the potential success of all of these projects. However, it’s clear that Musk is a pioneer in multiple aspects of space exploration. 

His ambition for SpaceX’s imminent success may pave the way for space travel and tourism as we know it.

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