A casual Elon Musk met with reporters on Friday night. “It hasn’t holed the ship or flipped over, so we’re pretty excited,” the SpaceX founder said at a press conference.
That’s what understatement sounds like. Musk’s Falcon 9 rocket had just blasted 200 km into space and flew almost horizontally toward the planet at six times the speed of sound before falling back to Earth. Then it somehow landed like a feather on a robotic ship in the ocean. The Falcon even found time to launch an inflatable space habitat into orbit as well.
“This was a beautiful day and the conditions were good,” Musk continued. “It’s a pretty small target. It’s really trying to land on a stamp.”
Engines and boosters have been in the big booze ever since NASA started launching Mercury astronauts into space. Most of those missiles sank to the bottom of the ocean. Some parts of the space shuttle were salvaged, of course, and the orbiter itself landed on a runway. But never before on Friday has a rocket launched into space and then returned to make a vertical landing at sea.
These are turbulent times for a new generation of private space companies. It’s only been five months since Blue Origin launched its New Shepard rocket into space before landing vertically in West Texas. SpaceX followed suit in December when its larger and more powerful Falcon 9 not only flew into space, but also launched a satellite into orbit and landed at a landing site along the Florida coast near the launch pad. Now SpaceX has taken the important step of landing at sea.
That’s critical, because it’s much more economical for a rocket to land on a ship below the point where it releases its payload into orbit, rather than going all the way back to a landing site near the Florida coast. . SpaceX estimates that only half of its launches will have enough fuel to fly back to shore after completing their primary missions.
After trying reusability with the space shuttle, which turned out to be much more expensive to refurbish for subsequent flights, NASA has largely given up on reusable spaceflight. Russia, Europe and other government agencies have too. So it fell to the new space companies – with their ethos of cheap, frequent launches as a means of opening up access to space – to push the technology forward.
SpaceX and Blue Origin are the most visible proponents of reusable launch vehicles. But other companies, including XCOR, Masten Space Systems and Virgin Galactic, are also interested. They’re not so much trying to win lucrative government contracts as they are trying to get lots of people and stuff into space, create a space economy and colonize the solar system. “This was a really good milestone for the future of spaceflight,” Musk said. “This is another step to the stars.”
Despite the overwhelming success of SpaceX on Friday, the job is not done yet. The venerable space shuttle offers a sobering lesson for these new space companies. While NASA said in the 1970s that the shuttle would cut the cost of delivering payloads into space to $25 a pound, it ended up costing nearly $25,000 a pound. It’s one thing to land a rocket, but it’s quite another to fly it again without spending a lot of time and money.
Blue Origin has flown the same single-engine New Shepard propulsion module and spacecraft three times in just over four months. Renovation costs are in the low tens of thousands of dollars. Company founder Jeff Bezos believes his technology will be scaled up to a much larger orbital vehicle, but that has yet to be proven.
Musk must also prove that his Falcon 9 rocket can be flown again with modest modifications. After the initial SpaceX landing in December, the company conducted a static test of the vehicle, which went well until one of the nine engines exhibited thrust fluctuations. That missile will stand as a memorial outside the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California. Perhaps the Falcon 9 landed at sea will be flown again.
“I think that’s likely,” Musk said Friday. SpaceX will attempt to return the booster to Cape Canaveral, Florida, by Sunday. After conducting a series of tests on the Falcon, the company plans to fire its engines at the ground 10 times in a row. “If it looks good, it’s eligible for reuse,” Musk said. “We hope to launch it again on an orbital mission, say in June.”
If the new space companies can make this work – and what was once a big one as it continues to shrink in size as SpaceX and Blue Origin crash through reusability barriers – it could completely reshape the economics of spaceflight. Launch costs are determined by hardware, not propellants. The cost to fuel a Falcon 9 rocket with liquid oxygen and kerosene as propellant is about $200,000, Musk said. The company’s commercial launch price is $61 million.
Initially, SpaceX plans to reduce the cost of a Falcon 9 rocket with a recycled booster to $43 million per flight, a savings of 30 percent. But this is just the beginning. Musk wants to make almost the entire Falcon 9 launch system reusable and he wants to make launches and landings routine. “Fast and complete reusability is very important to make a missile cost-effective, like an airplane,” he said. “We eventually need to get missiles to that point.” A Falcon 9 can fly as many as 100 times before retiring, he added.
For now, however, Musk and SpaceX are living in the moment. He said the company’s senior engineers believed there was a two-in-three chance of making Friday’s landing. Although the company failed to make a soft, successful landing five times before, they learned from those mistakes and fixed those issues. But there are always unknown unknowns in spaceflight. So when Friday’s moment came and the rocket stalled, Musk was ecstatic. He could hardly tell what would come next. “We’re kind of like the dog that caught the bus,” Musk said with a smile. “What do we do now?”