Elon Musk and SpaceX enjoyed a huge victory this week when they successfully relaunched the first stage of a previously launched Falcon 9 rocket. This is the first step in Musk’s long-term plan – which began 15 years ago – to make access to space relatively routine and much more affordable. But as noted by TechCrunch, SpaceX isn’t resting on its laurels, with Musk suggesting that he would now like to begin recovering the second stage as well.
But beyond the obvious business advantages that SpaceX would enjoy by massively reducing its costs in this way, cheap reusable rockets would make possible Musk’s ultimate goal of sending human beings to Mars and establishing one or more massive colonies there.
Musk explained his choice of Mars for a potential human colony during a speech last year in Mexico:
We have, in terms of nearby options, we’ve got Venus. But Venus is a super-high-pressure hot acid bath. So that would be a tricky one. Venus is not at all like that the goddess…So it’d be really difficult to make things work on Venus. Mercury is also way too close to the Sun. We could go potentially on to one of the moons of Jupiter, or Saturn, but those are quite far out…much further from the Sun. A lot harder to get to. It really leaves us with one option if we want to become a multi-planet civilization, and that’s Mars.
— Ashleigh Collins (@In_Electronics) April 2, 2017
As reported by Spaceflight Insider, Musk intends to do this using what he calls the Interplanetary Transport System. But for this system to work effectively and cost efficiently, reusability of as many components as possible is key. Otherwise, the high costs would make the entire project impossible.
Just this last week, in addition to recovering the reused rocket one more time on his floating drone ship out at sea, Musk was also able to recover the fairing that surrounded the satellite being launched into orbit by the Falcon 9. This fairing alone cost $6 million, so recovering this saves a good percentage of a $60 million launch.
Given that, the only part of the Falcon 9 that isn’t being recovered is the smaller second stage. While this doesn’t account for more than 30 percent of the overall cost of the rocket, getting it back as well would be a tremendous step forward for the company. This is why Musk’s suggestion following the latest landing that he would like to get the second stage back as well is so significant.
— The Seattle Times (@seattletimes) March 27, 2017
Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that this was Elon Musk’s original plan for the Falcon 9 in the first place. More than a decade ago, when Musk and SpaceX were in the planning and development stages for the Falcon 9 and its Merlin engines, Musk initially wanted to recover both stages of the rocket.
The company finally decided that this was too ambitious a goal – at least in the beginning – which led to them focusing just on the first stage. This made sense, since most of the cost of the rocket – including its engines – are located in this first stage. But clearly, Musk didn’t give up on his long-term ambition of getting his entire rocket back.
If in the coming years, SpaceX perfected a system in which it could recover the first stage, the second stage, and the fairing, the costs for taking cargo or personnel into space would drop dramatically. After all, the fuel being used by the rocket only cost a few hundred thousand dollars. That isn’t much more than the cost of fueling an airliner for a single flight. Suddenly, Mars will beckon.
[Featured Image by NASA/Getty Images]