SpaceX finally achieves its first successful landing

December 28, 2015, 3:16pm

The Economist
Photo: AFP

Technological achievements are, it seems, a bit like buses. You wait for ever, and then two come along at once. In November, an American company called Blue Origin sent a rocket to the edge of space before landing it back on the pad from which it had lifted off. That was an impressive trick. But it has just been trumped by another such firm, SpaceX, which has done the same thing with part of a rocket destined for orbit—a much harder task.

SpaceX’s vehicle, one of its Falcon 9 rockets, was sent on its way from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 0129 GMT on December 22nd. This, in itself, was no big deal. Falcons have been travelling into orbit since 2008. What is new is that when the rocket’s first and second stages separated, and the second stage carried on ascending with its payload of 11 satellites, the first stage flipped itself over, re-lit its engines to reverse its course, and headed back to the ground.

Ten minutes after launch, with the flames from those engines illuminating the Floridian evening, the first stage descended from the sky and landed itself upright on a pad a few kilometres from where it had started (a long-exposure image, above, shows both the takeoff and landing). "Holy shit", exclaimed one SpaceX staffer, amid cheering, hugs and backslapping at the firm's Californian control room. "We did it!"

SpaceX has tried to land the first stages of Falcons twice before, in January and again in April. Both attempts, which aimed to land on a robotic, ocean-going barge, ended in failure. This success is therefore an important development for the firm, and its ambition to cut the cost of space flight. One reason missions to space are so expensive is that existing rockets are one-shot machines. Using them is a bit like buying a new car for every journey made, or building a new 747 for every flight across the Atlantic, and then discarding it.

If SpaceX is thus able to land, refurbish and reuse its first stages routinely, it could greatly reduce the cost of launching things into space. The first stage of a Falcon 9 accounts for around 70% of its $54m price tag. SpaceX’s going rate for a satellite launch starts at around $60m, already the lowest in the industry, but reusable rockets would allow the company to go even lower. Its already-impressive order book, which includes America's air force, NASA and several commercial satellite firms, would swell further.

Blue Origin has yet to make a commercial flight, and its proposed business is rather different. Its New Shepard spacecraft is ultimately intended to carry passengers, though (at least at first) only just above the altitude of 100km (62 miles) that somewhat arbitrarily defines the edge of space. Crossing the Karman line, as this is known, requires a lot less energy than getting all the way into orbit. The two firms do have one thing in common, though. Both were founded by internet billionaires. Elon Musk, who started SpaceX, made his first fortune from PayPal. (He also runs Tesla, an electric car company.) Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin’s founder, is better known as the founder of Amazon.

SpaceX's ambition is to make the second stage reusable as well. That will be trickier. By the time the second stage has done its job it will be far higher and travelling far faster than the first stage ever does. But it is a goal worth pursuing. Mr Musk estimates that full reusability could lower the cost his rocket launches “by a factor of a hundred”.

Besides shaking up the rocket-launching market, such low costs are the key to his ultimate goal of making humanity into a multi-planetary species by establishing a colony on Mars. But that is in the future. For now, he and his staff at SpaceX can look forward to a well-earned Christmas break. As a famously hard worker, though, he probably won't take it.