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Not a giant leap

But private firm's rocket launch a baby step in space commercialization.

“There has been essentially no improvement in rocket performance since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president,” Pike said. “There has been no cheaper, faster, better in the rocket industry.”

Pike said today's launch vehicles face the same limitation that has frustrated rocket builders as far back as 1957, when Russia began the space race with the launch of Sputnik — most of a rocket's weight is still devoted to carrying the fuel that it must burn in order to get its payload into orbit.

“It's tough to escape gravity and nobody's found a better way yet than lugging a lot of fuel into space,” Pike said.

Livingston agreed that this fact continues to impede efforts to commercialize space, noting that only 6 to 8 percent of a rocket's weight is payload.

But Livingston said Musk has figured out how to reduce launch costs in other ways, notably by minimizing the number of technicians required to attend the rocket and prepare it for liftoff.

“If you look at a typical launch pad it's swarming with people,” Livingston said. “But SpaceX does just about everything with web cameras and remote control. That is the difference. These guys can launch with the fewest personnel.”

SpaceX officials declined to be interviewed but published reports say launches on the new rocket will cost about $8 million. Livingston said SpaceX is competitive with the lowest cost launches available today and will continue to whittle down costs to make new types of commercial space projects more feasible.

He said one such potential application is the study of protein crystals formed in the space. Proteins are the active mechanisms of biological processes and diseases often result from protein breakdowns. Crystallizing a protein to determine its structure can help to design drugs.

NASA studies have shown that proteins crystallize better in weightless environments. Livingston said drugs are so profitable that pharmaceutical companies could become commercial space customers if they had routine and reliable ways to get crystallization experiments into space and back again.

“The path to solving many of Earth's problems lies in space,” Livingston said. “SpaceX is trying to begin to change the cost equation of getting into orbit and I think they deserve a lot of credit for that.”

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