With Thursday’s successful test of a recycled Falcon 9 rocket first stage, Elon Musk’s SpaceX took another major step in its goal of slashing the costs of space travel. The recovered and refurbished rocket stage was tested in a standing position on the ground and fired for approximately two-and-a-half minutes. This is equivalent to the time the rocket would need to fire during an actual launch. This bolsters Musk’s opinion that his company can provide far less costly access to space than traditional single-use rockets like ULA’s Atlas 5 or Europe’s Ariane 5.
SpaceX has successfully test fired the engines of a recycled Falcon 9 first stage before this. But Thursday was the first time that the pioneering aerospace company has carried out a full duration standup test involving the entire first stage rather than just the rocket engines themselves.
ICYMI, there was good fire at SpaceX's test site in Texas today. Another step closer to reusability! https://t.co/34nZnNtnW3— Amanda (@alias_amanda) July 29, 2016
As Space points out, the rocket used in this test was recovered in May of this year in an impressive nighttime landing on one of SpaceX’s oceangoing landing barges. The rocket was originally used to deliver a Japanese communication satellite to geosynchronous orbit. Even though this represents a successful test of the recycled Falcon 9 first stage, SpaceX will not be using this particular one again in an actual launch.
SpaceX originally considered an approach that would have allowed the company to recover both the first and second stages. But the costs involved in recovering the less-expensive upper stage caused SpaceX to drop this plan. Even so, Musk has suggested that his company might revisit the idea of a recovered and recycled second stage at some later point.
One of the challenges that SpaceX faces with its future plans to use recycled rockets for launches is convincing potential customers they are safe. Companies placing satellites worth hundreds of millions of dollars in orbit want to be sure they’ll actually make it there. Tests like the one SpaceX carried out on Thursday provide evidence SpaceX can use to convince any doubters.
The Falcon 9 Heavy will be the most powerful rocket since NASA’s venerable Saturn 5 took U.S. astronauts to the moon. But unlike the Saturn 5, most of the Falcon 9 Heavy can be recycled. Even during its first test, SpaceX will try to land all three parts of the first stage at the same time, which should be an impressive sight.
This test flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy will provide SpaceX with the ability to land fairly large cargoes on the surface of Mars. Elon Musk has frequently voiced his opinion that humanity must expand to other worlds to avoid possible extinction on Earth. SpaceX has already announced its intention to launch an unmanned version of its Dragon spacecraft – termed the Red Dragon – to Mars in 2018.
Of course, all of these long-term plans are dependent upon SpaceX proving its ability to recycle a rocket and reuse it again. Thursday’s successful test of the Falcon 9 first stage is a major milestone in SpaceX corporation’s future goals.
[Image via YouTube]