The first SpaceX rocket to be reused by the pioneering Elon Musk company will, according to Popular Mechanics, launched at the end of March. If successful, this will be the achievement of a goal the company has been working toward for years. As reported by Bloomberg, it would also open the door to far lower costs for launching both manned and unmanned rockets into orbit.
Elon Musk and SpaceX
Rocket reuse is at the core of the SpaceX business model laid out by Elon Musk. While SpaceX has already achieved much greater efficiencies and lower costs by consolidating the design, construction, and assembly of their rockets into a single facility – unlike ULA and other rocket launchers who have a host of contractors around the world – Elon Musk hopes to really bring down the cost of getting into low Earth orbit and beyond by recycling and reusing the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket.
— Bloomberg (@business) March 9, 2017
The first reuse of a rocket stage will represent a milestone not only for the company, but for the aerospace industry as a whole. Most of the traditional aerospace companies – including Boeing and Lockheed – believed that it was not possible or practical to land a rocket vertically, which is why they turned to shuttle-like vehicles when considering reusability.
But the space shuttle proved that the cost of this kind of lifting body vehicle was prohibitive and that the reliability and safety was also questionable. But as Musk himself later said:
The space shuttle was often used as an example of why you shouldn’t even attempt to make something reusable. But one failed experiment does not invalidate the greater goal. If that was the case, we’d never have had the light bulb.
In the end, the government, NASA and its traditional contractors decided to go back to the same expendable rockets they had been using for decades. Again, though, the costs involved were enormous. It’s impossible for it to be otherwise when you throw the vehicle away after one use.
Landing the SpaceX Rocket
Despite the naysayers, Musk and SpaceX committed themselves more than a decade ago to the dream of a reusable rocket that could land at its launch site or at a drone ship far out in the ocean. In the end – and in spite of spectacular and explosive failures – the company proved its detractors wrong by landing a number of its Falcon 9 first stages safely – both on land and at sea aboard its barges.
— Joy Dunn (@RocketJoy) March 9, 2017
But just getting the rockets back isn’t sufficient. For months now, SpaceX has been working to confirm that the rockets it has recovered are fit for reuse. After careful test firings and other tests, SpaceX decided to move forward with an actual launch using one of their refurbished first stages.
As SpaceX’s chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell put it during an interview.
“SpaceX has been working on reusability since the get go. In order to make that work, you need to inspect it and make sure it is ready to fly again. Once we get really good at that, there will be downward pressure on price.”
This first launch will deliver a satellite for the tiny nation of Luxembourg into high Earth orbit. Presumably, SpaceX will also want to recover this reused first stage for further use in the future, which means they will again try to stick the landing. Given that this is a launch into high Earth orbit, the amount of fuel the SpaceX rocket will use will necessitate a landing on the barge – rather than back at the launch pad at Cape Kennedy.
[Featured Image by NASA via Getty Images]