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Private space travel: A new future for humanity?

SpaceX, a private space exploration company headed by Elon Musk, successfully landed a Falcon rocket this week.

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A remodeled version of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on the launcher’s first mission since a June failure in Cape Canaveral, Florida, December 21, 2015. The rocket carried a payload of eleven satellites owned by Orbcomm, a New Jersey-based communications company. The first stage returned to land following launch.

REUTERS/Joe Skipper

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Monday marked a historic moment for SpaceX, established in 2002 by Elon Musk to explore the possibility of finding a hospitable environment off Earth.

In the first successful space launch after two failed attempts, the Falcon 9 took off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in a two-stage launch, first deploying 11 spacecraft for the satellite-communications company Orbcomm, and then performing three “boostback burns,” before returning to Cape Canaveral

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The event did more than just mark the beginning of a non-government funded space exploration – it marked the beginning of a grander vision to explore space as a potential outlet for survival. 

Mr. Musk, a former PayPal entrepreneur and CEO of Tesla Motors, founded SpaceX with the idea of creating cheaper private space travel and potentially finding a way to colonize on Mars.

“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,” said Musk in a statement in June. “That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.” 

Exploring life on other planets – especially Mars – has been of interest to many space-venturing companies. NASA spent $125 million on the Mars Climate Orbiter, launched from Cape Canaveral in 1998, when it spent nine months traveling to Mars before burning up due to what was later discovered to be a miscalculation.

Other private companies have also been talking about launching similar missions. Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp markets one-way tickets to Mars, and “plans to finance his venture by turning it into a reality TV epic – think Survivor meets The Truman Show meets The Martian Chronicles,” according to the New Yorker. Others, such as Eric Anderson’s Space Adventures, has already planned private visits to the International Space Station for $52 million. 

But SpaceX is the first private company to successfully launch a rocket into space – at the cost of $16 million. Musk is hopeful, however, that the company will find cheaper ways to travel.

“The cost of the propellant is only about $200,000,” Musk said during a press conference. “So that means that the potential cost reduction in the long term is probably in excess of a factor of a hundred.” 

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Still, while many have their eyes on Mars, Musk has no illusions about the difficulties that lie ahead. 

"It will be super hard to do this, and it will take a lot of time," he said at AGU last week. "I suspect I probably won't live to see it become self-sustaining."