Currently, NASA is working on other projects, whose results we probably won't live to see: it plans more robots for Mars, it's working on the James Webb Space Telescope, will try and touch the Sun with the Parker Solar Probe and, a time long from now, will send humans out into the Solar System.
While NASA dreams, back at home, on planet Earth, Russia, China and a handful of companies have taken the lead. They are servicing the International Space Station (ISS), they are sending America's and other countries' satellites into space, and some are even planning to land on the Moon.
Being a private company, SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, as it officially named) has not had access to the vast resources of entire countries, like China. It's advancements in developing a fully reusable launch rocket have been astonishing.
In 2008, the so-called Falcon 1 became the first privately funded liquid-propellant rocket to reach orbit. In 2010 the Dragon was the first privately funded spacecraft to be launched, to orbit the planet and to be recovered. SpaceX was the first private company to supply the ISS in 2012, and there have been nine other missions to the space station flown by SpaceX since. It was the first to manage to land an orbital rocket in 2009, the Falcon 9, and it has now been tasked by NASA to develop a human-rated Dragon shuttle for future ISS astronauts.
And now this. The Falcon Heavy, the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two. To be launched for the first time on February 6th, its destination is planet Mars.WHAT IS IT?
Falcon Heavy is a reusable launch system. One that utilizes the three Falcon 9 nine-engine cores with 27 Merlin engines, capable of generating more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. As SpaceX says, that's roughly the equivalent of eighteen 747 aircraft starting their engines at the same time.
All those engine cores are called Stage 1. The side cores, (NASA calls them boosters) are connected at the base and the top of the center core’s liquid oxygen tank. After liftoff, those boosters will separate.
The second stage comprises a Falcon 9-sourced Merlin engine that will be used to deliver payloads into a variety of orbits including low Earth, geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) and geosynchronous orbit (GSO), after the main engines cut off and the first-stage cores separate.
SpaceX is working on technologies which will help them recover all parts of the rocket. The Falcon 9, on which the Heavy is based, proved its worth in both land and sea landings.
This, in turn, might significantly lower the price-per-launch of space missions. Since 2013, launch prices are below $2,200/kg thanks to the efforts made by SpaceX, among others.WHY DOES IT MATTER
Falcon Heavy was designed from the start to carry humans into space and hurdle them towards the ultimate goals of near-term space-exploration: the return to the Moon and the first human landing on Mars. Both are goals set by state-run space agencies as well, so why should private attempts be looked at differently?
First off, being private means that you are, at least in theory, safe from political meddling, changes of heart in the country's leadership and so on. Secondly, you can dedicate all your resources to the task at hand, leaving no opportunity buried. After all, a private company wants to make money, so undertaking a space-oriented work is not a whim of the moment.
Elon Musk's exuberance when it comes to his space goals is unparalleled. Aside from the Falcon project, he also has some other tricks up his sleeve: he already presented his Moon base and Martian city projects.
What sets Musk apart from other dreamers is that he usually puts his money where his mouth is. As a CEO, he may not be the best there is. But as a dreamer, and a doer, it's a significant possibility that future generations to remember him as the one that managed to take humanity to the stars.
Just imagine how the world will be like if Musk's rockets manage to land on Mars.