The new age space race is upon us as Elon Musk’s SpaceX gears up to send billionaires to the moon and NASA plans for upcoming missions this month at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. So naturally, inquiring minds want to know: just how much fuel does it take to get to the moon?
Next Sunday, August 13 a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will blast off from Kennedy Space Center aimed for NASA's International Space Station. The Dragon spacecraft is an unmanned capsule that will fly with 3 tonnes of supplies, small potatoes next to their ambitious goal of sending two space tourists to the moon in 2018, their first mission with humans on board the spacecraft.
The cost for a single load of fuel for the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, presumably a more austere model than the one that will be used for space tourism in the near future, is between $200,000 and $300,000. Makes you think twice about complaining about how much is costs to fill your Range Rover!
Now for a bit of history: for the 1967 Apollo mission to the moon, Saturn V rocket’s first stage carried 203,400 gallons of kerosene fuel and 318,000 gallons of liquid oxygen needed for, totaling over 500,000 gallons of fuel for getting out of the atmosphere alone. The second stage carried another 260,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and 80,000 gallons of liquid oxygen. The third stage carries 66,700 gallons of liquid hydrogen and 19,359 gallons of liquid oxygen. All told, the rocket that achieved one small step for a man and one giant leap for mankind held just under 950,000 gallons of fuel.
Since then, space age technologies have come a long way. By comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon 9uses just a mere fraction of the fuel combusted by Saturn V. To be fair, the Falcon 9 is smaller, simpler, and not designed to re-enter orbit safely (it has no stage three), but even so, you can see that the fuel efficiency of spacecrafts has improved leaps and bounds.
SpaceX fuels their crafts not with liquid hydrogen, but with kerosene, which has a lot more energy per gallon. Thanks to this and other advances, Falcon 9’s first stage uses 39,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and almost 25,000 gallons of kerosene, while the second stage uses 7,300 gallons of liquid oxygen and 4,600 gallons of kerosene. Combined, it makes lean mean 75,900 gallons of fuel.
As we speak, SpaceX is finishing their plans for a heavy-lift launch vehicle known as Falcon Heavy, which is scheduled to fly for the first time this summer. Other big names in the private space industry are working on similar heavy-duty model that will be able to bring unprecedented amounts of supplies into space. The United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan is scheduled to launch in 2019 and Blue Origin is currently working on a model called the New Glenn, which will allegedly be able to deliver 100,000 pounds of cargo (or space tourists) to lower Earth orbit.
NASA is also trying to compete with privatized space exploration companies, developing their own giant rocket known as the Space Launch System, which they claim to be the most powerful rocket ever created. While the look and size are quite similar to the now-antique Saturn V, this rocket will have a capacity of 150,000 and 290,000 pounds.
While this dwarfs the models being created by the private space industry, critics point out that due to its size and weight the Space Launch System is extremely expensive (around $1 billion per mission) and would just be launched once or twice a year, making it unable to compete with the ambitious launch schedules of companies like SpaceX.
Thanks to the introduction of privatized market competition in the space race, we’re now seeing more economic and fuel-efficient rockets than ever, and it seems that the rate of innovation will continue to accelerate at warp speed. Perhaps in another 50 years, moon vacations won’t just be for billionaires.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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