The rocket has landed!
SpaceX, the rocketry startup founded by Elon Musk, succeeded on December 21, 2015 in bringing the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket back to land after boosting a group of satellites into orbit. The impossible has been made real. Science fiction has become science fact.
The first stage came down from the sky like a ball of fire, engine burning brightly as it settled, tail-first, Buck Rogers style, on a concrete pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida. This is an unprecedented feat: orbital rocket boosters have never been recovered in working condition before. SpaceX aims to make its rockets able to fly, gas-up, and re-fly, which could revolutionize space flight by driving its costs down radically. This is a big step toward putting space stations, the Moon, and Mars within reach of all of us.
SpaceX’s achievement follows on last month’s breakthrough by Jeff Bezos’s space company Blue Origin, which landed the booster stage of its suborbital rocket after a test flight in Texas.
Landing an orbital first stage is a different order of difficulty than a landing suborbital one: the orbital stages have to go much faster and boost much heavier payloads (such as an orbit-capable second stage and spacecraft). They have to eliminate every bit of mass possible from their structures, so they can carry maximum fuel. In fact, the rocket that landed was also the first flight of the “full thrust” Falcon 9, which used super-chilled, extra-dense oxygen to boost its total fuel and total power to new levels. What Blue Origin did was great. What SpaceX achieved was tremendous.
These feats are concrete demonstrations of the impact of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship. Both SpaceX and Blue Origin are companies founded by men who made their fortunes first in internet start-ups. But they’ve taken the can-do culture, the brilliance, the drive, and the computer programming know-how of Silicon Valley and put it to work on projects that had long been given up as fantasies of science fiction.
There is much more work to be done. To achieve the economic promise of reuse, SpaceX needs to keep landing first stages and progress to reusing them consistently for ten or more flights each. Blue Origin, for its part, aims to offer tourist rides to the edge of space. To do that, it has to make its reusable system fly over and over and over.
There will be problems and hiccups as that progress continues. But progress it is. Savor the moment, as the power of the reasoning mind is made evident, again, and the possibilities for human civilization have notably expanded.