We are currently living in the most exciting era in space exploration in history, one arguably even more important – and certainly more dynamic – than when the Apollo Moon landing program was ongoing in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, a commercial space industry is set to provide transport to low Earth orbit (LEO) for NASA astronauts or even commercial passengers, and just yesterday Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, gave a presentation detailing his vision not just for landing humans on Mars, but for making the human race a true interplanetary civilization by opening up access to the rest of the solar system for anyone willing to go.
His plan is even more audacious than it sounds: SpaceX is developing a rocket that weighs more than ten-thousand metric tonnes on launch, which will ferry a hundred or more people at a time to the surface of Mars. This rocket is much larger and heavier than any rocket ever built or projected to be built. Its supercooled metholox closed-cycle engines will allow rapid transport to and return from Mars through in-situ fuel production, allowing maximum use of interplanetary windows to land as many ships as possible on the Red Planet, to (relatively) quickly establish a self-sustaining human colony on the surface. As Musk said in his presentation, “This is different than Apollo”; a fleet of colony ships headed for another planet is an unprecedented human endeavor in both nature and scale.
It’s not necessary to watch the presentation before reading the rest of this article, although I highly recommend any of my readers who are even remotely interested in the subject do so.
How does this tie in to our subject here at The Firearm Blog? Since the 1980s, there has been talk of whether or not the firearms industry has reached a “plateau”, in other words whether development of fundamentally new and different firearms has slowed or even stopped in the past several decades. The answer to this is not unquestionably “yes”, but it’s difficult to deny that today’s industry – which centers around 60- or even 70-year old designs – is at best moving slowly forward. How do we jump start the engine of innovation once again? Musk tells us:
I think what a lot of people don’t appreciate is that technology does not automatically improve. It only improves if a lot of really strong engineering talent is applied to the problem, that it improves. And there are many examples in history where civilizations have reached a certain technology level, and then have fallen well below that, and then recovered only millennia later.
The health of the firearms industry may not decide the fate of our civilization, sure, but his point is no less applicable. Only through dedicated application of talent and manpower will small arms break through the cocoon in which it now slumbers, and once again wake up. The good news is that there are more intelligent, talented people in our industry now than ever before, and we can learn from Musk’s success with SpaceX to forge a path ahead.
In the presentation above, Musk gives a brief overview of the company’s history, tracing its growth from a small, bare office holding a mariachi party to arguably the most important player in space exploration today. When it started, SpaceX was just a vision and a small collection of talent. Today it is the only entity to have (among numerous other achievements) ever landed under a first stage booster from an orbital launch under its own power, something the company has now done no less than five times – four of those onto an unmanned barge in the ocean.
Perhaps more instructive for us than the company’s successes, though, are its failures. The first three rockets – all Falcon 1s – ever flown by SpaceX were failures resulting in the losses of both the launch vehicles and their payloads, and the first of these failed within 34 seconds of launch. These were not simply the company “finding its feet”, either; space launch and exploration is a high-risk endeavor, and those who undertake it must expect to become good friends with failure. Indeed, Musk’s presentation comes on the heels of SpaceX’s biggest failure yet: The loss of Falcon 9 Full Thrust F9-029 and its AMOS-6 payload occurred on just the first of this month, and was a major setback to the company.
Musk and SpaceX’s secret is that they are prepared for failure, and determined to continue in spite of it. “The risk of fatality will be high” on the first of SpaceX’s Mars missions, Musk said in his presentation. Risk acceptance of this kind is completely at odds with traditional risk-averse business practices, but it’s the only way to attack new frontiers and lay the groundwork for future industry. A firearms company that wishes to overturn the current status quo and restart the engine of ingenuity must accept this risk as part of the bargain, not as something to be avoided.
With the Interplanetary Transport System, SpaceX has shown us another way of breaking out of our cocoon: To defy convention, and dream big. In some professional circles, the ideal launch vehicle size for interplanetary exploration is a vehicle that can launch 50 metric tonnes of payload into low earth orbit. This size is seen as the most economical one, small enough to be useful for commercial satellite launch, while still achieving a high enough payload to allow practical in-orbit assembly of an interplanetary-capable spacecraft. However, a 50 tonne vehicle is completely incompatible with SpaceX’s vision, and they have taken instead the route of a 500-tonne-to-LEO behemoth. It is the only way to achieve the kind of passenger density per mission that Musk believes is necessary for planetary colonization, as opposed to mere exploration. Musk’s Interplanetary Launch System is far, far higher risk than a smaller rocket, but the paradigm-shattering vision of interplanetary colonization demands it.
Along the way, Musk’s 100-passenger-per-ship model has solved or at least greatly reduced one of the great unknowns of trans-Martian spaceflight: How does a small group of people – possibly as few as 4 – deal psychologically with spending years all alone in outer space, months or even years away from other human contact or help? What sort of “desert island syndrome” might crews of such a flight experience during their journey to and from the Martian surface? Musk’s proposal mitigates this problem to the maximum possible degree. The Interplanetary Transport System would ferry not a small crew of explorer-heroes, but effectively an entire human tribe to the surface of Mars, and the routine missions to the planet’s surface that Musk envisions would only increase that number. This maximizes the manpower available for a Mars mission, and could solve a number of potential problems with interplanetary spaceflight.
SpaceX’s success now and (hopefully) in the future has always incorporated a sense that “nothing is off the table”; as proof of this, consider that a decade ago a commercial spaceflight company landing a reusable rocket under its own power onto a barge in the middle of the ocean would have been virtually unthinkable. Such a task was simply too technically complicated, and for what financial gain? Yet, Musk’s vision demanded an architecture that could lower the cost of spaceflight enough to make practical his ultimate goal of routine interplanetary spaceflight. The “how” took a backseat to the goal itself, a rearrangement which completely changed the calculus of space launch for SpaceX, relative to all other space launch programs in the world.
With all the talk of “vision” and “dreams”, it’s easy to see SpaceX as a maverick, rogue entity in mankind’s space exploration frontier, but – as Musk points out – close cooperation with the traditional space exploration organizations has been key to the company’s success. Musk describes himself as “NASA’s biggest fan”, and says that NASA is SpaceX’s “number one customer”. In the firearms industry, this kind of partnership with – but independence from – the traditional centers of small arms development (chiefly the US Army) is critical. We have seen with the Improved Carbine competition and other Army endeavors that in many cases government-driven vision cannot be relied upon to produce results. Instead, it’s up to the private sector to take up the mantle and Dream Big, but in doing so traditional government customers must be courted if any groundbreaking small arms program is to be financially feasible.
SpaceX has achieved this through a sort of “modal” development: As Musk points out in the presentation, the company’s Dragon capsule has been designed for powered descent (meaning that engines are used instead of parachutes or wings to slow the craft down for landing), which makes its capability to land completely independent of the characteristics of the celestial body it is landing on. Put differently, SpaceX designed Dragon (and Dragon 2) to fit the vision of interplanetary travel, while serving a commercial purpose as a resupply and crew capsule for orbital missions in the meantime. This kind of flexible-path development has allowed the company to pursue the very costly development of the technologies and techniques needed for interplanetary missions and low-cost-to-LEO space launch while at the same time maintaining the business model that makes them able to operate independent of government grants and research contracts. If, like Elon, you believe that the vision must be achieved if at all possible, this is the only way to provide for its ultimate success.
A 500-tonne-to-LEO rocket would be dismissed by many professionals as ludicrous or impractical, but Musk and SpaceX’s acceptance of risk allowed them to think outside of that box, and Musk’s Big Dream drove him to think about his problem on a fundamental level to find a solution irrespective of conventional wisdom. The company’s determined perseverance in the face of massive failure has already given them a place in the history books, and has made them in the eyes of many the best hope for a revolution in space exploration. A soundly engineered path for success, viable as both a research program and business venture simultaneously, has given them the independence to pursue the vision regardless of the circumstances, and their embrace of – but independence from – government agencies as customers and partners has given them the vitality they need to maintain an intensity of development that no other private agency has been able to achieve without a direct government request.
What could the firearms industry achieve if it were willing to dismiss conventional wisdom, and instead pursue a Big Dream? Could we finally realize caseless ammunition, which experts (including myself) say is infeasible? Could handheld energy weapons become a reality? Or, could we rethink the problem entirely, and come up with something entirely new? We will not know until we try.