SpaceX landed a rocket, proving that space exploration can be affordable
SpaceX just did something that no other organization with an interest in space has ever done – it landed a rocket, proving that reusable rockets are not just possible, but are likely the next staep in space exploration.
When it comes to space exploration, the problem isn’t really the technology; it’s the cost. If cost weren’t an issue, we’d be talking about booking our next vacation on the moon, and what we should do when we land on Venus. We went from barely understanding what the conditions were like in space to walking on the moon in less than a decade when money was no object and the nation was united behind the idea.
That exploration has stalled, however, not because of the lack of technology (which does play a part), but more because it is just too expensive. The space shuttle program was mothballed because of how much it cost to launch and maintain the shuttle each time – it was simply cheaper to pay the Russians to take our astronauts up than it was to run our own program.
One of the most significant costs associated with launching a satellite or spacecraft is the rocket needed – specifically the cost of using a new rocket each and every time for a launch.
Rockets are multi-stage devices that burn their chemical fuel, then detach. The spent rocket casing then falls away, sometimes landing in an uninhabited area, which essentially pulverizes them, or more often landing in the ocean, where they hopefully recovered from the bottom of the ocean – although recovery is far from certain. In either case, the impact can be devastating. Some are reusable, but it is a difficult and costly process to clean them up.
SpaceX has been experimenting with landing its Falcon 9 rocket on a floating platform out at sea for awhile now. Both the rocket and the platform were remote controlled, ensuring there is no one around to pay the price if things go wrong – as they have in every attempt so far. For this attempt though, they opted to attempt the landing on a concrete platform in a deserted area.
Generally, when an experiment of this magnitude fails, it isn’t a bad thing. Those involved learn from their mistakes, and improve upon the results the next time out. For SpaceX, the previous attempts all ended in massive explosions, but each attempt was closer to success.
The most recent attempt at landing a Falcon 9 rocket came following a scheduled launch that took 11 satellites into orbit. The rocket’s entire trip took just over 10 minutes, from launch to landing.
There will need to be several more successful landings before SpaceX can rely on this, but it does prove that it can be done, which in turn will significantly lower the cost of all space launches thanks to the truly reusable rockets.
SpaceX is currently working toward sending a crewed mission into space in 2017. The plan is to send humans in the Dragon capsule on top of the Falcon 9 rocket. Other commercial companies are planning their own launches, but SpaceX is the leader, and this just puts them one step further ahead.