Image via SpaceX's Twitter Account
The South African wunderkind and modes of transportation enthusiast Elon Musk must still be in a state of bliss after last’s night ground breaking event for the commercial spaceflight industry. The Tesla (TSLA) CEO’s passion project, SpaceX, successfully landed its Falcon 9 rocket upright on a landing pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida yesterday evening after launching the rocket into space.
This is the first time SpaceX has been able to effectively and gently touch down the Falcon 9 after being launched — a feat that the company has been unable to achieve for the past year. The Falcon 9 landing is a huge first step towards reusable rockets.
11 satellites deployed to target orbit and Falcon has landed back at Cape Canaveral. Headed to LZ-1. Welcome back, baby!— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 22, 2015
Despite this monumental achievement for SpaceX, it's not the first time a vertical take-off rocket has landed upright after launching into space this year. In late November, Amazon (AMZN) CEO and “purposeful Darwinist” Jeff Bezos’ private spaceflight company Blue Origin launched its flagship rocket—New Shepard—and brought it back to Earth without the vessel falling in a blazing inferno. SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is more complex than New Shepard: it’s designed to go higher in space – beyond the Karman Line – and at a higher rate of speed.
Congrats @SpaceX on landing Falcon's suborbital booster stage. Welcome to the club!— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) December 22, 2015
Charles Miller, President of NexGenSpace – a spaceflight consulting firm – believes that both accomplishments from these rival companies suggest more positive progress is to come. "I think it’s very clear the future is reusable space, and the rest of the world is playing catch up to the innovation that’s taking place in America’s space entrepreneurs," said Miller, per The Verge.
Currently, rockets that travel into orbit are either destroyed or lost after taking off. These inconveniences and setbacks drive up the cost of spaceflight because an entirely new rocket must be developed and built for another launch. If SpaceX can routinely reuse its rockets, the company saves the cost of manufacturing new vehicles for follow-up missions. Therefore, in theory, spaceflight could be much more affordable.
SpaceX has attempted to land its rockets twice before without success. In January and April, the company performed first stage test runs of the Falcon 9 — a 14-story tall portion of the rocket body — on a floating platform out at sea. The rockets fell over and exploded both times.
These setbacks pale in comparison to some of the truly horrific realities of space travel. Richard Branson – minority owner of Virgin America (VA) and founder of the Virgin Group – had one of his Virgin Galactic spaceships crash during a test flight in October 2014, killing one of the two pilots.
Since SpaceX's first two failed attempts, the company has made modifications to the testing process. The first change is that today’s landing was on solid ground, rather than at sea — a small floating ship is not reliable, and a rather unpredictable target. The second change is that SpaceX introduced an updated version of the Falcon 9, informally known as the Falcon 9 v1.1 Full Thrust. As the name implies, this version of the Falcon has a modified structure and an updated engine that provides more thrust.
If SpaceX can routinely reuse rockets, progressive change in the whole commercial spaceflight industry is inevitable. The Verge cites that Mr. Musk has previously stated that the manufacturing cost of the Falcon 9 is $16, but only $200,000 to fuel. Eliminating a $16 million expense could drastically bring down launch costs. Competing launch providers may have to explore reusable rockets as well to compete with SpaceX on future contracts. This sort of news and success is the next step to a future that allows individuals who have dreamed of becoming astronauts and traveling into space to witness the beauty and splendor that is the cosmos.
Check out the video below to see the Falcon 9’s launch, reentry, and landing. It is pretty darn cool.
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