SpaceX made history yesterday when it launched and landed one of its orbital rockets that had flown before for the first time.
The groundbreaking launch took place at 6.27pm EDT (11.27pm BST) from Cape Canaveral in Florida. On board was the SES-10 telecoms satellite for Luxembourg company SES.
All the excitement was centered on the first stage of the rocket, though, which had already flown to space once in April 2016 on a cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS). SpaceX has now recovered eight of its rockets – but this is the first one to fly twice.
“It means you can fly and refly an orbital class booster, which is the most expensive part of the rocket,” CEO Elon Musk said in a webcast shortly after the landing. “This is going to be, ultimately, a huge revolution in spaceflight.”
The first stage, sitting pretty on the drone ship after landing last night
The landing occurred about eight minutes after liftoff, with the first stage using grid fins to stabilize itself and finally firing its booster to land on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You. The video feed momentarily cut out, but when it jumped back to show the rocket had landed, there was a rapturous celebration at SpaceX’s headquarters.
This was the ninth successful landing for SpaceX – three on land and six at sea – but arguably the most important since the first one in December 2015. Being able to fly the first stage of a rocket again and again proves rockets can be reusable. This could dramatically reduce the cost of going to space, which has been SpaceX’s goal all along.
In a press conference after the landing Musk said the first stage represented about 70 percent of the cost of each flight, but fuel cost only about 0.3 percent. With each launch expected to come in at around $60 million, reusing the first stage obviously has a huge cost benefit.
And it’s not just the first stage they want to reuse. On this flight, SpaceX surprised us all by also performing a controlled landing of the payload fairing – the clamshell metal shape on top of the rocket that protects the satellite on the way to space – at sea, using thrusters and parachutes. This itself costs about $6 million.
Here's a replay of the launch
In the future, the ultimate goal is for the second stage of the rocket to be reusable, too. Thus, there would be almost no expendable parts. Only Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle (and NASA’s Space Shuttle to an extent) have shown this sort of reusability capability. SpaceX has changed the game, and other more established companies are struggling to keep up.
It also ramps up the flight rate. Musk said he was hoping to launch, land, and launch again in 24 hours as early as next year, which is hugely ambitious, considering it took months to refurbish this first stage. If that happens, SpaceX will be able to plow through its growing catalog of launch contracts at a rate unmatched by other launch providers.
He also said they were planning to launch their new heavy-lift rocket, the Falcon Heavy, for the first time in late summer this year. Falcon Heavy will use three boosters compared to Falcon 9’s one – but on this first flight, Musk said the two side boosters would be ones that had flown before.
And there’s plenty more excitement to come this year. Five more reflown rockets may launch, while their manned Dragon capsule will undergo a test flight towards the end of 2017, with a first manned flight planned in 2018. In a month, Musk said we’d also get new details and an updated timeline for his Interplanetary Transport System, a bold plan to get humans to Mars.
Some have bemoaned that plan as being too ambitious. But SpaceX has done a pretty good job of proving its critics wrong so far. Who knows how far they can really go.
“There should be absolutely zero question that SpaceX will prevail in reaching orbit and demonstrating reliable space transport,” Musk said to his employees back in 2008, after his inaugural Falcon 1 rocket failed on its way to space. “For my part, I will never give up, and I mean never.”
Few can doubt him now.