Six months ago, after seventeen consecutive successful launches, a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket blew up during its journey to orbit. I was bummed.
Last Monday SpaceX returned to flight, and not only successfully completed the mission but also brought the first stage back to the launchpad and landed it vertically. I’m not sure how the average person views that accomplishment, but to this engineer watching the live webcast it was one of those jumping-up-and-down-and-cheering-while-no-one-else-is-in-the-house things. The history of spaceflight since the 1960s has been a series of minor improvements, but this is a major new development that could have vast repercussions for how we access space. Using an imperfect metaphor, a rocket costs a similar amount to an aircraft, and the airlines aren’t charging $60 million per flight, so the ability to use a rocket more than once has the potential to vastly reduce costs for getting things into space. Everyone immediately thinks of sending more humans into orbit when considering cheaper access to space, but think about the revolutionary impact that communications satellites, planetary probes, the Hubble telescope, and earth monitoring satellites have had on our daily lives and our understanding of the universe, and then increase that by at least an order of magnitude if costs decrease. Then jump up and down and cheer.
SpaceX still has some significant technical challenges to address before they can actually re-use their rockets, but there is reason to believe that in the next few years they will have figured out how to use each rocket more than once, and this recent landing will mark a historical turning point when options for space increased dramatically. I’m excited.