On February 6, Elon Musk’s space exploration company SpaceX executed the successful launch of one of the largest rockets in human history. The Falcon Heavy, weighing over 138,891 pounds (63,000 kilograms), is the largest and most powerful rocket since the 1973 Saturn V moon rocket, which weighed 308,647 pounds (140,000 kilograms).
When hearing about the launch of Falcon Heavy, Josh O’Toole (’18), who is keen to pursue astrophysics in university, was immediately in awe of how far space technology has come. After reading more about SpaceX, he was impressed with how much new information could be gathered about the universe from such undertakings. “I think [the launch of Falcon Heavy] is fantastic because it allows us to explore worlds we’ve never seen before and understand our world better and make new discoveries,” O’Toole said.
What makes Falcon Heavy so groundbreaking relative to previous space shuttles is its low cost rockets and use of newly-developed technology: reusable boosters.
Previously, rocket boosters would detach from the main rocket unit and fall back into the ocean. All of the materials, specifically the metals, found in the booster would be lost. However, SpaceX has created a technology which allows the boosters to land safely back on Earth, which means that they can be refueled and reused for another rocket mission. Science Teacher Marisa Wilson believes that “the whole thing is becoming cheaper, as a result of being able to reuse the boosters.”
Despite her interest in space exploration, Wilson believes that we should still pay attention to the environmental issues on Earth. “We can’t forget about what’s going on here on Earth. You know, this is a great place to live, in terms of having the outdoors and trees and mountains and water. That doesn’t exist on Mars or the moon or wherever,” Wilson said.
Wilson believes that the enormous resources that are currently being invested into space technology should be invested into environmental solutions instead. The current budget for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States is only $8.1 billion, while NASA’s budget is upwards of $19 billion. Additionally, President Donald Trump’s administration’s proposed federal budget would, yet again, decrease funds allocated to the EPA, while protecting NASA’s.
In agreement with Wilson, Chaznane Fidahoussen (’19) believes that there should be a greater emphasis on protecting the environment. She also believes there needs to be a balance between spending resources to protect the earth, and to explore space. “Our main priority is staying alive, so the environment is going to help us do that, [but] I think there are many good reasons as to why these [space travel] programs should happen,” Fidahoussen said.
However, O’Toole believes that space travel can help Earth’s environment. “In space is where we can find solutions to our problems on Earth. For example, the whole situation with energy, you could find those energy sources elsewhere in space to bring back to Earth,” he said. “It would benefit Earth in the long term.”
Similar to O’Toole, Fidahoussen cites the intellectual curiosity of humans and expanding knowledge of the universe as the primary reason for space travel. “You get to discover, you get to be more curious about the world. You should definitely spend money on space travel,” she said.
One benefit of a private company handling a launch, as opposed to a government agency, is that they must be more conscious of their budget. This fiscal necessity leads companies like SpaceX to find more cost-efficient solutions, such as their reusable rocket technology. If they had a budget as gargantuan as the government’s, they would not be as aware of costs, and would have a lesser incentive to develop cheaper solutions.
Wilson believes that private companies having this leeway is an advantage for them when coming up with more innovative ideas. “It frees the companies to think a little bit more creatively,” she said.
Many of these new and creative ideas developed for space travel, often find their way into other aspects of life. One such example is kevlar, which is used in skis, ropes and bulletproof vests, was developed by the space industry.
Another prime example of innovative space travel ideas being implemented on Earth is Musk’s interplanetary rocket system to the Moon and Mars. Musk is making plans to use this same space travel system as a means for long distance travel on Earth, claiming that it will allow people to travel to anywhere on Earth in under an hour.
Although the logistic of these plans have not been fully revealed, O’Toole predicts it will result in financial advantages. “There’s more opportunity for economic growth because it’s easier to travel to different places and do business with different parts of the world more quickly,” he said. “Therefore [it will] accelerate business and allow for bigger and quicker growth.”
Moving forward, Musk’s main goal for SpaceX is to have humans colonize Mars. With advancing technology, he believes the day when humans are able to settle on the planet is not far off. While Fidahoussen believes this can have a profound impact on humanity, she is hesitant of the environmental impact it will have on Mars. “It’s great to make new discoveries, to build a new civilizations, especially as our population is growing, but I think that destroying another world will have such a bad impact,” she said. “I would like to preserve the nature of Mars if possible.”