SpaceX’s vertical landing of it’s stage one Falcon 9 was truly a historic undertaking.
SpaceX Versus United Launch Alliance
Statistically, United Launch Alliance is batting 1.000. In it’s first 60 launches of the Atlas V rocket, the company (a collaboration between Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense, Space & Security) has seen 60 successful launches. SpaceX, unfortunately, can not make this same claim having seen a failed launch in 20 attempts last June.
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However, and this is a potential game changer, last Monday SpaceX successfully vertically landed the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket when it returned to Cape Canaveral a couple of miles away from where it had launched just around 10 minutes earlier. While SpaceX launched its payload of 11 small satellites into orbit successfully, that was hardly the big story. The big story was the vertical landing of the first stage. While Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin did the same in November with its New Shepard, the New Shepard is sub-orbital vehicle.
Boeing and Lockheed Martin have been in the space game for some time while SpaceX’s accomplishment last week can only be made greater by the fact that that’s it only been around for a mere thirteen years.
What went differently this time for SpaceX?
Let’s be clear, this is not the first time that a spacecraft has returned to Earth for reuse. We all remember NASA’s space shuttle program that was begun in the 1970s. Despite twice losing a craft and its crew between 1981 and 2011 when the program was active, the space shuttles flew 135 missions successfully and collectively spent well over three years in orbit.
However, a large rocket has never been returned to Earth successfully in what SpaceX’s pioneer, Elon Musk, called a, “revolutionary moment” following the landing. It should be noted that on two separate occasions, the company had attempted a vertical landing and failed in its efforts. Both previous attempts saw SpaceX attempt to return the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket to a barge in the ocean. Each ended with a terrific explosion and fireball as the rockets seemingly had trouble dealing with the rolling and pitching of the sea and the platforms. Additionally, the successful landing was done with a more powerful rocket.
The former Atlas launch pad now designated Landing Zone 1, certainly proved a better target if all credit doesn’t go to the more powerful rocket that SpaceX will begin using regularly in 2016. Musk described the accomplishment as a landing that was “almost dead center.”
Now what for the reusable rocket?
Musk has always maintained that the reusability of a rocket is the key factor in dramatically reducing the cost of space travel as well as travel to Mars. For example, the Falcon 9 sells for well over $60 million but “only $200,000 of that is propellant,” Musk has told reporters. If reusabilty on a regular basis is ever achieved, Musk maintains that it will reduce the cost of its Falcon 9 “in excess of a factor of 100.” But that remains quite a ways off for SpaceX and others despite this achievement.
For example, despite the fact that this particular rocket was successfully landed, it will not be reused. The booster that made history will instead head off to the company’s new launch pad at Cape Canaveral LC-39A. Though this was the same platform used for the Apollo missions, SpaceX has spent a fair amount of time and money refurbishing it for its purposes. The landed booster will be used for static firing tests for the company’s first manned flights to the International Space Station slated to begin in 2017 as long as the pad is certified. When asked what would happen to the booster after it had completed its work in static tests, Musk made it clear that it still wouldn’t make another flight, “I think we’ll probably keep this one on the ground” due to its historical significance.
But that doesn’t mean that Musk and his team won’t attempt to relaunch and reland a booster in the future assuming it can repeat the feat with another booster in the future.
Mars and the future of reusable rockets
Elon Musk has never failed to make it clear that he wants a Mars colony for civilization and would even like to live there himself. A reusable rocket would be key to getting missions back to Earth. Additionally, reusable rockets would also play a role in future moon landings and could even be used as a (no way near) “half way point” to Mars as a liftoff from the moon would require considerably less fuel leaving the moon’s atmosphere.