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Why SpaceX Success Is Crucial To Our Future In Space

by Chris Poindexter

Standing on Florida’s coast last night I witnessed space history as a Falcon 9 booster lifted off from Cape Canaveral and arced into the night sky. From my vantage I could see the booster separate and the second stage light and continue onto orbit. Up until that point it had been a fairly routine space launch; it’s what happened next that made history and brought the dream of routine space travel a step closer.

As millions watched both along the Florida coast and across the world on the internet live feed, the engines on the first stage flared back to life and stabilized the booster as it dropped back toward earth, the second stage now only a dim red dot racing away in the distance. As the main booster got closer to the ground the engines roared to life again, producing an envelope of flame that looked like a giant yellow/orange flare in the night sky. I was too far away to see the actual landing, but there was a distant hint of the sonic boom clearly audible to anyone on Florida’s Space Coast.

Watching on the SpaceX internet video feed it looked momentarily as if the booster, landing at a facility roughly six miles from the launch site, might have crashed but the smoke cleared and the booster stood tall. “The Falcon has landed,” a commentator on the live feed announced and the SpaceX control room went nuts, dissolving into a chant of “USA! USA! USA!”

Photo courtesy of SpaceX.

Photo courtesy of SpaceX.

For Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX for short, the flight was a success in at least three different ways. Besides recovering the main booster, SpaceX also successfully put 11 data relay satellites into stable orbits. That achievement, remarkable on its own, was almost lost in the celebration that followed. The success also highlighted the company’s recovery from a failed launch where the rocket exploded, destroying a load of supplies for the International Space Station along with the booster.

The success of SpaceX is a significant step toward making space travel less expensive, although there will now be a long process to study the rocket’s internals and determine exactly what repairs would be necessary to return it to service. Interestingly, the booster that landed successfully last night won’t be making another trip into space. Due to its historical significance that booster will be used for engineering analysis and static ground tests.

Earlier attempts at landing the booster on a specially designed robot barge on the ocean were unsuccessful but even those failed efforts yielded value. SpaceX was able to demonstrate that by using heat-resistant fins shaped like small grates they could guide the booster to a precise spot and ignite the engines for a soft landing.

Photo courtesy of SpaceX.

Photo courtesy of SpaceX.

Once the engineers complete the final analysis, Elon Musk, the company’s billionaire owner, estimates that being able to recover the boosters could result in a 100 fold reduction in the cost of a typical launch. Musk compared single use boosters to scrapping a brand new 747 after a single flight to England. Even if it turns out only some parts of the recovered booster can be reused, it will still cut the cost of individual space launches by orders of magnitude.

Even the optimistic Musk admits it will take years to iron out all the engineering issues associated with reusable rocket boosters. The power and violence of a space launch is hard on rocket components. He remains confident the issues can be resolved and looks forward to his ultimate goal of a permanent human presence on Mars.

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