Elon Musk's rocket landing Tuesday may have 'failed' but he's on the brink of changing spaceflight forever

On Tuesday, April 14 the commercial spaceflight company SpaceX attempted the near impossible when it tried to land one of its Falcon 9 rockets on a floating platform 200 miles off the coast of Florida.

SpaceX’s billionaire founder Elon Musk broke the bad news on Twitter:

Sadly, the rocket didn’t quite stick the landing, but it came pretty damn close.

SpaceX released this spectacular video of the rocket almost pulling off the landing. The rocket was almost completely vertical as it touched down, though it seems to have been damaged in some way after the end of this vine:

The dream behind Tuesday’s attempt to land a used rocket on a drone ship is to create reusable rockets. The ability to use the same rocket over and over, rather than building a new rocket — at a cost of around $US61 million for every launch — would dramatically decrease the cost of spaceflight.

SpaceX already slashed the cost of launches by creating a more cost-efficient rocket design.

Now, with this game-changing reusable rocket technology in the works, the company is poised to revolutionise spaceflight again.

SpaceX’s rocket launch and landing plan involves a series of complex maneuvers where the first stage of the rocket reorients itself after separating from its payload, and then flies back to Earth using grid fins, a sophisticated GPS tracking system, and strategically timed engine burns. The plan is for the landing to look something like this:

They are getting pretty damn close to this picture-perfect animation, and they are only on their second try.

The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket accounts for about three-quarters of the $US61 million cost, and each launch only burns about $US200,000 of fuel, so if SpaceX can recover the first stage after every launch, it would change the economics of spaceflight forever.

“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like aeroplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred,” Musk writes on the SpaceX webiste. Effectively that would make the cost of a launch only around $US200,000 to $US300,000 (for rocket fuel and oxygen), as opposed to a $US61 million rocket, Musk told Bloomberg.

Right now only a couple of launches happen every month. With reusable rockets, multiple rockets could launch and land — potentially within the same day.

And if SpaceX pulls this off, it will leave its commercial spaceflight competitors like Orbital Technologies in the dust.

Right now SpaceX has a $US1.6 billion contract with NASA to ferry supplies to the astronauts living and working onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Reuseability would completely undercut any of the competition for this job.

The only other commercial spaceflight company with a shot to take on SpaceX is United Launch Alliance (ULA) that just announced plans for its new Vulcan rocket. ULA will attempt to make parts of the Vulcan reusable, but its design is not as wholly reusable as SpaceX’s design.

Reuseability would also make it much cheaper for SpaceX to send astronauts up to the ISS. The company has already unveiled its next capsule, the Dragon v2, the devlopment of which NASA has funded as a way to carry astronauts to the ISS. SpaceX is already launching and using an earlier version of the space capsule. Boeing has a contract with NASA too, and has unveiled its CST-100 space capsule that is still in testing phase.

Musk has said he hopes to successfully land a rocket on the platform by the end of the year. Tuesday’s attempt was tantalizingly close.

And it’s only April.

The next rocket launch and landing attempt will likely be in June. Maybe third time’s the charm?

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