It looks like something from a 1960s puppet series – International Rescues’ Thunderbird Three.
At the very least it was a scene straight from a science fiction movie.
A white, pencil-shaped rocket angling down through a hazy-blue sky, then gracefully touching down, amid billowing smoke. All on an automated drone-ship in choppy Atlantic seas. In that moment, Elon Musk reached a new milestone in his bid to dominate commercial space and, one day, send humans to Mars.
That is SpaceX for you. Ambition unlimited.
At the company’s mission control centre in Hawthorne, California, a throng of employees exploded in cheers as the Falcon 9 rocket landed. President Barack Obama and Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who walked on the moon nearly half-a-century ago, were among the first to send congratulations from around the world.
With characteristic bravado, Musk soon chimed in: “Tickets to orbital hotels, the moon and Mars will be a lot less than people think,” he wrote on Twitter.
This was no test flight – the Falcon 9 rocket was carrying SpaceX’s Dragon capsule to the International Space Station, loaded with 7 000 pounds of cargo, supplies and an inflatable extension module.
Less then ten minutes after lift-off Falcon 9 made a gloriously easy-looking powered return to land on SpaceX’s drone ship.
So what’s the big deal?
First, getting the biggest and costliest piece of launch hardware back in one piece offers the possibility of reusing it and lowering the expense of reaching space.
Reuse means drastically lower launch costs in the long run. It might cost $60 million to build one of SpaceX’s boosters, but only a few hundred thousand dollars to refuel it. Even if making it flight-worthy again costs several million dollars of engineering tinkering and fixing, that’s still an enormous saving.
Why not return for a solid ground rather than ocean landing? The problem is that at least half of the expected launch trajectories from the Cape involve heading over the Atlantic for a distance that makes it infeasible to get back to land in Florida. The boosters simply can’t carry enough fuel to turn around and come back.
The solution – ocean-going drone ships (with names like ‘Of Course I Still Love You’, and ‘Just Read the Instructions’, lifted from Iain M. Banks novels). These mobile landing sites can chug out to open water to be in exactly the right spot for the rocket to fall back towards from the arc of its launch trajectory, even if hundreds of miles offshore in the Atlantic.
With a successful landing out in the ocean, SpaceX is on its way to covering all the options, so that all launches can involve a gentle booster recovery and huge cost-savings.
And that’s where the vision thing comes in.
As Elon Musk and many others have long stated, dropping the cost per-unit-mass of launching to space is critical if our species is going to explore and utilize the solar system. It’s also the key to ensuring our long-term survival.
This is a step to the future – where mankind can live off-planet. Should we have colony-sized structures in space? Should we go to the Moon? Or should we try Mars?
This landing is symbolic – maybe the start of a new era of affordable, reusable rockets.
Long considered a brash upstart nipping at the heels of staid aerospace giants, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation is coming of age 14 years after it was founded by Musk. It is planning to fly 18 missions this year, triple the number in 2015.
That is a highly ambitious goal in an industry known for delays and mishaps. If SpaceX hits its target, it will fling more rockets into space than any competitors from the US, France, Russia and China and achieve a launch cadence not seen since the end of the Cold War.
None of this is good new for competitors like Europe’s Arianespace, which flies the Ariane 5, and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin who are scrambling to match SpaceX’s lower costs and fast-paced Silicon Valley atmosphere.
Reusable rockets, once scoffed at by established players as a pipe-dream, are now top of the agenda.