In a major milestone in commercial spaceflight On 21 Dec., SpaceX used their Falcon 9 heavy-lifter rocket to carry a payload to orbit and land its lower stage to be be used again. SpaceX has suffered a number of failed attempts to land a lower stage on a floating platform at sea, but this first success was on land.
Harrison Jerome, a sophomore at Raisbeck Aviation High School, is a major space enthusiast, and has been following industry efforts to develop a reusable rocket like the Falcon 9.
“It was the first landing of a reusable rocket. They took off out of Cape Canaveral,” said Jerome, “and their primary mission was to deploy 11 satellites into Low Earth Orbit, but meanwhile, their bottom stage was deployed at about eighty kilometers above the Earth and it was brought down to a descent only a few miles away from the landing pad.”
The landing of the lower stage of the Falcon 9 is a remarkable first step towards making space travel cheap and easy–essentially trying to go to space for the cost of fuel and nothing more.
“Let’s say that you want to fly a plane. You’ve got a 747 that you’re trying to take on a flight from Los Angeles to New York,” said Jerome, “you wouldn’t want to use the plane just once to get there, you’d want to reuse it a bunch of times, and what they’re basically trying to do is make a totally reusable rocket that they can land, refuel, and use on another flight. In the past, most rockets, in fact, almost all rockets, just launched to space once and came back down.”
Reusability is a major factor in space travel–it is always better to be able to use a spacecraft several times rather than needing to build a new one every flight. However, this has until recently been seen as a far off dream, either too difficult to make or not efficient enough.
“The space shuttle was the first reusable rocket to be used regularly, but it didn’t have the cost benefits [NASA] was hoping,” said Jerome, “it ended up being one of the most expensive endeavors NASA has ever done. Only the shuttle part and the SRB [solid rocket boosters] were reusable, the large red tank was not reusable, that burned up in the atmosphere.”
Even with the difficulty of engineering a reusable rocket, multiple private companies have been trying to design rockets that are almost fully reusable.
“SpaceX is not the first to land a rocket that went into outer space,” said Jerome. “Blue Origin is trying to become significant in space with their reusability. They landed their first rocket a few weeks before SpaceX.”
While Blue Origin landed a rocket that had been to space, SpaceX landed a rocket that was going to orbit–the difference between throwing a ball up and then catching it and throwing the ball up and forwards, then having it fly back to you.
SpaceX launched a second attempt on 17 January, this time back at sea, but a failure in one of the support legs caused the craft to fall over and explode upon touchdown. Company founder and CEO Elon Musk has promised that SpaceX will continue to refine their designs, and remains confident that affordable commercial space travel will become a reality in the near future.