Elon Musk has just pulled off his dream of more than 15 years: fuel up a used rocket booster, fire it off, then recover it for yet another launch.
“It’s an amazing day for space as a whole, for the space industry,” Musk said during a live broadcast of the launch.
SpaceX, Musk’s rocket company, launched one of its 229-foot-tall Falcon 9 rockets at 6:27 p.m. EDT on March 30. The two-stage rocket delivered a telecommunications satellite into orbit.
But the biggest moment came just minutes after launch, when the first-stage booster fell back to Earth.
The rocket’s booster is the largest and “most expensive part of the rocket,” Musk said, and the one used Thursday had previously launched and landed itself on April 8, 2016.
Today that booster again detached from its payload, fell back to Earth, and safely landed on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean.
The event marks the first time in history that any part of a commercial, liquid-fuelled orbital rocket has been successfully recovered, reused, and recovered again.
“This is going to be a huge revolution for spaceflight. It’s been 15 years to get to this point,” Musk said. (SpaceX was founded in 2002.) “I’m at a loss for words.”
Why this launch was so important
The main mission of the launch was to get a satellite called SES-10 into orbit more than 22,000 miles above Earth. From there, it will blanket much of Central America and South America with internet and television coverage.
But all eyes were on the first-stage booster.
Boosters ordinarily cost tens of millions of dollars to build, yet always burn up, sink into the ocean, or crash into the ground after helping to deliver a payload into orbit.
Not so for the bottom halves of most 229-foot-tall (70-meter-tall) Falcon 9 rockets. Those boosters can touch down on land or on a ship at sea. However, until Thursday SpaceX has not yet re-launched one to prove that its scheme works.
John Logsdon, a space policy expert and historian at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, told Business Insider before the launch that the feat — now a fact — could be “potentially revolutionary”, since reusing boosters could reduce the steep cost of getting to space.
“Reusability has been the Holy Grail in access to space for a long, long time,” Logsdon said.
Falcon 9 launches: Now 30% off?
The booster for the SES-10 mission first fired off on April 8, 2016. It helped deliver an inflatable room to the space station, screamed back to Earth, righted itself, and self-landed on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
Reusing a rocket booster could save customers about 30% on a $US62-million Falcon 9 rocket launch, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s COO, has said. The Falcon 9 is already the most affordable orbit-capable rocket system in the world, but such a discount would save companies more than $US18 million per launch.
“This mission … is the fundamental key demonstration,” Shotwell said in a video before Thursday’s launch. “It will allow people to live on other planets,” she said, referencing Musk’s ambitious vision to colonize Mars.
Marcus Payer, the global communications director for SES (the telecommunications company behind the new satellite) said the deal to be a part of this historic launch came about in August 2016. It was originally planned for later that year, but SpaceX’s uncrewed rocket explosion on September 1 and the months-long accident investigation that followed delayed the flight.
“Wherever we can change the industry equation, we will do it. We were waving our hands to be the first,” Payer previously told Business Insider. “We are not risk-averse, otherwise we would not be launching satellites.”
Musk was elated by the rocket booster’s landing at the center of a droneship.
“We just had an incredible day today,” Musk said. “Right in the bullseye.”