SpaceX Takes a “Revolutionary” Step Toward Reusable Rockets

A Falcon 9 first stage makes a controlled landing 10 minutes after launch.

The first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket fires its engine before landing back at Cape Canaveral, December 21, 2015. (SpaceX)
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Is it time to start calling SpaceX the world’s best rocket company? Maybe not if statistics are the only measure—the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V has a perfect 60-for-60 launch record, while SpaceX’s Falcon 9 had its first failure in 20 tries last June.

But when it comes to innovation, daring, and importance for the future of space exploration, what Elon Musk and company have accomplished in 13 years puts them, for now, at the forefront of space engineering.

Last night SpaceX gave us another “revolutionary moment,” in Musk’s words, when the first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket landed upright on a converted launch pad at Cape Canaveral, just a few miles from where it had taken off 10 minutes earlier. It was the first time a conventional rocket returned to Earth intact after delivering payloads (11 small satellites) to orbit. (Blue Origin’s New Shepard, which made a similar soft landing last month, is not an orbital vehicle.)

In a post-launch telephone conference with reporters, Musk said that before the launch he’d given the landing about a 60 or 70 percent chance of coming off—two previous attempts to land on a floating barge had ended with explosions. When he heard the sonic boom from the returning first stage, Musk said he thought this one had exploded, too. But the Falcon first stage slowed to a fiery stop and settled “almost dead center” on an old Atlas launch pad now designated Landing Zone 1.

Musk has maintained from the start of SpaceX that reusability is essential to his vision of radically cutting the cost of space transportation. The Falcon 9 sells for a little over $60 million, but “only $200,000 of that is propellant,” he told reporters. If the company can routinely recover the launch vehicle, he said the potential cost reduction is “in excess of a factor of 100.”

Twin streaks: a time exposure catches both the launch of the Falcon 9 on December 21, 2015, and the return of its first stage to Cape Canaveral. (SpaceX)

Yesterday’s successful landing of a Falcon first stage was just one step in a long process of learning how to do full reusability. “It will take us a few years to iron that all out,” Musk said.  This particular booster will be re-used, but not for a space flight. SpaceX will send it to the company’s newly refurbished launch pad at Cape Canaveral (LC-39A, the same pad used for the Apollo moon launches), where it will undergo static firing tests needed to certify the pad for astronaut flights to the space station, which are expected to begin in 2017. Then, said Musk, “I think we’ll probably keep this one on the ground” due to its historical significance. He said SpaceX will likely try re-flying a returned rocket stage sometime next year, on one of the more than a dozen launches on the company’s manifest.

When the larger Falcon Heavy rocket debuts next year, Musk said that both dry-land sites and ocean barges may be needed as landing zones, due to the higher return energies of some of the rocket stages.  And he reiterated that his goal of creating an affordable interplanetary transit system requires full reusability, or as full as possible. “It makes all the difference in the world,” he said.

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