An efficient, cost effective reusable launch system has been the holy grail for all those seeking access to space. There have been numerous attempts, the most notable of which being the venerable Space Shuttle, however even that failed to achieve its goals of drastically reducing the cost of putting things into orbit. SpaceX has made significant headway into making orbital access cheaper however their lofty goals of a reusable system have eluded them thus far. However, just yesterday, they managed to hit a critical milestone: the first stage of their V1.1 Falcon-9 making a successful vertical landing at their site at Cape Canaveral.
The mission was set to launch the day previous however it was delayed in order to increase the chance of a successful recovery landing by another 10% (which also gave us a spectacular night launch, depicted above). The payload aboard the Falcon-9 was 11 ORBCOMM satellites which are low earth orbit communications satellites designed for Machine to Machine communications (essentially tracking and sensor data primarily). After a successful launch into orbit the first stage begun preparations to bring itself back down to earth. Then, only 10 minutes after the initial launch, it landed successfully back on earth to much fanfare from the ground control crew at SpaceX.
Unlike previous first stage recovery attempts this one used an area of flat land rather than the sea based drone ship. This is something of a simpler challenge, since you’re not trying to track a moving target, however those initial tests provided significant risk mitigation should something have gone wrong. Whilst this is the first successful demonstration of the technology at an orbital scale it’s definitely not the first time SpaceX have managed to successfully land a rocket vertically (despite what Jeff Bezo’s tweet about it would lead you to believe). That achievement is held by SpaceX’s Grasshopper demonstration rocket which has been in operation for some years now.
This achievement allows SpaceX to continue development on their reusable launch system program. Whilst the rocket has made it successfully back to Earth it’s certainly worse for wear, showing significant discolouration along its entire fuselage. The challenge SpaceX faces now is how to refurbish the rocket in order to make it flight worthy again, something which has proved to be quite costly for other reusable systems. However SpaceX has said it is confident that the recovery process will make their Falcon-9 rocket either cheaper or more performant (or both, they hope). Whilst they’ve long since abandoned any plans to make the Falcon-9 fully reusable (the second stage is considered unrecoverable, for now) it will be very interesting to see how the first stage recovery affects the service SpaceX can provide.
This is an incredible achievement for SpaceX, demonstrating that they’re quite capable of pushing the envelope in launch system technology. It’s these kinds of improvements that help drive down the cost of access to space and will hopefully pave the way for NASA and other space faring nations to focus on what they do best.