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Space Travel Might Become A Whole Lot Cheaper

HOST INTRO: This afternoon the private company SpaceX with NASA launched the first reusable rocket. It’s headed to the international space station. The rocket could revolutionize the cost of getting to space. Caroline Ballard reports.

NASA's first photo of the Earth from Space, dated April 1, 1960. Courtesy NASA Archives.

NASA’s first photo of the Earth from Space, dated April 1, 1960. Courtesy NASA Archives.

A little more than an hour ago, the Falcon 9 rocket launched from Cape Canavral.Fade up launch… (0:16)

The rocket is made by SpaceX, the private company founded by Elon Musk, also the head of Tessla and a cofounder of Paypal. The craft was carrying 5,000 pounds of supplies.

Thomas Zurr-boken is an aeronautics professor at the University of Michigan. He says right now, space flight expensive.

ZURBUCHEN: To launch a pound into orbit takes in excess of 10,000 dollars. Anything you can do that’s just one pound. (0:05)

So with 5,000 pounds it’s 50 million dollars, and that’s just the supplies. But the falcon 9 rocket can save money by being used again.

Usually what happens is that as a craft launches, the rockets that blast it into the atmosphere fall back to earth and is destroyed.

But in this case, when the falcon 9 comes back to earth it will be retrieved to be used again. It will hover over the ocean, and gently descend on its legs. This could revolutionize space travel.

ZURBUCHEN: So if you can take a whole subsystem that we usually dispose of that costs millions and millions of dollars and reuse it you cut a huge fraction or a substantial fraction of that cost. (0:12)

The private company was contracted by NASA for this cargo supply mission – the third such mission for SpaceX. It’s more important than ever that NASA save money. The space agency’s budget is down point three percent this year, or fifty million dollars.

Mike Massimino is an astronaut for NASA. He flew up to repair the Hubble Space Telescope in 2002 and again in 2009.

MASSIMINO: I think every government agency would say they could use more money but what person would say they couldn’t use more money. You know unfortunately most people need money and most agencies could use more. (0:10)

Massimino says letting commercial space flight fill this gap is the next logical step.

MASSIMINO: I think that’s where the role of the government is actually is to kind of establish something and then leave it to commercial industry and then move beyond it and I think we’ve seen that in lots of industries, you know, in airplanes. (0:11)

Massimino says there’s a good analogy in the commercial airline industry. The government first developed airplanes for wartime purposes, but now it comprises a booming commercial industry as well. Millions of people fly on planes every day.

Massimino has high hopes for commercial space flight and even space tourism. He sees it as an invaluable experience.

MASSIMINO: Anyone that’s gotten a chance to see that any astronaut that’s been in space and that’s gotten a chance to look around a little bit has been given a gift. (0:07)

The Falcon 9 will reach the international space station Sunday morning.

Caroline Ballard, Columbia Radio News.


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