Take a fresh look at the consumables in your supply chain.
On December 21, 2015, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 made history. After successfully delivering 11 communications satellites into low-Earth orbit, the nine-engine booster rocket returned safely to Cape Canaveral, landing dramatically on a jet of fire.
Less than a week later, SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted that the Falcon 9 was “back in the hanger … no damage found, ready to fire again”.
Reusability the Key
Placing satellites into orbit is no mean feat, but the astounding, history-making part of this operation was landing the booster. It’s all about reusability. Until now, putting a rocket into space has been prohibitively expensive due to the single-use aspect of launching. In his detailed explanation of Musk’s vision, Tim Urban of the website Waitbutwhy compares single-use spacecraft to air travel:
“Imagine the current air travel industry with one key difference: an airplane works for one flight only. Each flight is on a brand new plane, and after the flight, passengers exit into the terminal and the plane is broken down into scrap metal and possibly-reusable parts that are sent off to be refurbished for use in a future plane.
An airplane costs around $300 million to build. So in this new model, in addition to paying for the crew’s time and fuel, airlines have to spend $300 million extra each flight to build a plane. How would that change things?
First, there would be very few flights available—the schedule would be limited by the pace of plane production. Second, the price of a round-trip ticket between Chicago and San Francisco would now cost about $1.5 million per person. For economy.”
Musk himself has stressed that reusability is the key to making human life multi-planetary:
“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred. A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.”
Here’s how they did it: https://youtu.be/sSF81yjVbJE.
Reducing the Costs
So how will SpaceX’s achievement affect the costs of getting to space? With a human mission to Mars as the ultimate goal, back in 1989 NASA estimated it would cost $450 billion to send 4-6 astronauts, about $100 billion a seat. This was upgraded in 2004 to $50 billion, or $10 billion a seat. Musk has a per-seat goal of $500,000, 20,000 times less than NASA. That’s less money than an average home loan in Australia.
The huge reduction in costs will be brought about through a combination of revolutionary improvements, including low-cost propellant, making the return propellant on Mars, and having approximately 100 paying passengers per flight. The biggest saving, however, will be through the rapid reusability of rockets, where the only costs involved are maintenance, life-support and refuelling.
The closest NASA has come to reusability was through the now-retired Space Shuttle program, which was able to land the spacecraft itself but not the booster, costing over $200 million per astronaut.
What About Your Supply Chain?
The Falcon 9 story is inspirational in the sense that SpaceX has achieved something that the world’s best aeronautical engineers said could never be done. The single-usage problem has been unsurmountable for decades, but SpaceX solved the puzzle and other organisations will soon follow suit.
The message here for procurement professionals is to take a fresh look at the consumables in your supply chain that could possibly be reusable. Whether the article is as expensive as a rocket booster or as cheap as office paper, it’s worth reconsidering whether items really are only suitable for a single use. Reusability is good for the bottom line, good for the planet, and will help put humans on Mars sooner than we think.
 Propellant can be created using Mars’ CO2 atmosphere and the H2O frozen in the soil.