Today at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, SpaceX, the private aerospace company led by CEO Elon Musk, successfully executed its mission to deliver SES-10, a communications satellite, into geostationary transfer orbit, as well as re-land — for the first time ever — one of its Falcon 9 orbital class rockets on the drone ship, Of Course I Still Love You. Although the company has previously landed Falcon 9 rocket first stages (first stages being the most costly portion of the rocket responsible for initial thrust) on both land and drone ship, this is the first time an orbital class refurbished first stage has ever been successfully reused and landed. It’s a feat that could bring down the cost of spaceflight by 30% and revolutionize the way we break gravity’s chains.
As SpaceX notes, the successful execution of the “SES-10 mission [marks] a historic milestone on the road to full and rapid reusability…” Musk and SpaceX have made it clear that the only way to make spaceflight more affordable, and hence more ubiquitous, is to lower the costs involved in sending rockets into orbit or beyond. This means that the rockets must be fully and rapidly reusable, like any other form of transportation we’re used to using. (Imagine how expensive a plane ticket would be if the plane could only be flown once.)
— Cosmic Carol (@Cosmic_Carol) March 30, 2017
Although Jeff Bezos and his company, Blue Origin, have successfully reused their New Shepard rocket in the past, SpaceX’s reusing of the Falcon 9 is more significant because the New Shepard was a suborbital rocket, whereas the Falcon 9 is orbital class. As Musk has noted, the New Shepard went out into “space” whereas the Falcon 9 delivers payloads into “orbit,” which requires 100 times the energy.
Getting to space needs ~Mach 3, but GTO orbit requires ~Mach 30. The energy needed is the square, i.e. 9 units for space and 900 for orbit.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 24, 2015
It should also be noted that, as NASA Spaceflight points out, the Space Shuttle was technically an orbital-class rocket that achieved partial reusability as well. There is a difference however, as the Space Shuttle threw away all of its external tanks, and its recovered solid boosters could not be reused economically. By actually re-landing the first stage with thrust rather than simply having it open a parachute and fall into the ocean, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 also definitely has a claim to a more rapidly reusable system as well as infinitely more style points. Plus the Space Shuttle cost $450 million per launch. SpaceX gets payload to orbit for $62 million, and it’s clear that the cost is coming down!
What do you think about SpaceX successfully landing the “world’s first reflight of an orbital class rocket”? Let us know your thoughts below!