On April 8, SpaceX made history, landing its Falcon 9 rocket on a lonely barge in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
After three failed attempts, the landing marks SpaceX’s first successful attempt at guiding a 229-foot-tall rocket to a vertical landing on a floating target.
Rockets like the Falcon 9 play an integral role in launching satellites into space and sending supplies to the International Space Station. But the rockets we use today cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make. And as of right now, these rockets have a very short shelf-life. After their brief moment in the sun, they’re essentially sent to a great junkyard, never again to be seen.
Now, private spaceflight companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are racing to design and build rockets that could be reused anywhere from 10 to 100 times.
Last November, Blue Origin became the first company to successfully land a reusable rocket. But this rocket was much less powerful than SpaceX’ Falcon 9, travelling slower and less high.
While Blue Origin only plans to use suborbital rockets to carry tourists for very short periods of times, SpaceX uses its rockets to transport supplies to the International Space Station into low Earth orbit. The company celebrated its first safe return of a rocket to a site on land last December.
One small step for a Falcon 9 and one giant leap for the future of reusable rockets
Unlike the first Falcon 9 that SpaceX succesfully landed, the oceanfaring Falcon 9 is already being prepared for its second trip. CEO Elon Musk has announced that they expect to reuse the Falcon 9 from the barge landing within two months, making it the first orbital rocket to make a second venture into space.
The plan to reuse rockets is far from perfect. And the news that SpaceX is planning on reusing this rocket — the first one it’s successfully landed at sea — comes as a bit of a surprise.
In practice, withstanding the drastic temperature changes and the intense pressure and winds of the atmosphere would leave the rockets with a few scrapes and bruises. NASA’s Space Shuttle, which was also designed to be reusable, ended up being more trouble than it was worth, costing up to over a billion dollars per launch. The rocket would probably need to be refurbished before its next launch.
But the Falcon 9 is much less complex than the Space Shuttle. Even with the cost of refurbishment, reusable rockets like the Falcon 9 would slash the toll of spaceflight significantly. And they could cut the time between launches from a few months to a few weeks. CEO Elon Musk has announced that they expect to reuse the Falcon 9 from the barge landing within two months.
The landing of the Falcon 9 was an important milestone in rocket technology, signifying one small step for a Falcon 9 and one giant leap for the future of reusable rockets.