Ars Technica (somewhat breathlessly) reports on SpaceX’s success, launching a rocket that made it to space and then returned home to land safely:
The historic flight marked the beginning of the orbital economy by promising a future of dramatically lower launch costs.
The company had twice tried to land on an autonomous drone ship. The first time the rocket hit too hard and exploded on impact. The second attempt again landed slightly too hard, breaking two of its legs and tipping over. The third attempt, at a newly designated landing site less than a mile from SpaceX’s processing facilities in Florida, looked almost too easy on terra firma.
As employees of SpaceX watched from the company’s Hawthorne, California-based headquarters, they cheered raucously and then broke into chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A!” The company is one of two US firms building spacecraft to end NASA’s dependence upon Russia for transportation to the International Space Station. However SpaceX is unique in that neither its rocket nor spacecraft rely on Russian suppliers.
In some ways, the mission marks the dawn of a new space age. It begins to deliver on the promise of reusable launch vehicles, which is critical to increasing access to space. SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, has said it costs the company about $60 million to build a Falcon 9 rocket. The propellant itself only costs $200,000. Thus there is the potential to slash the costs of spaceflight by 10, or even 100 times.
Now the company will have to demonstrate it can refurbish a rocket stage with relatively little work, and then it must re-fly the stage. With the space shuttle, NASA had a largely reusable vehicle, but it required a huge standing army of employees to turn around. SpaceX must show it can do this more efficiently, and then do it consistently. With Monday night’s successful flyback, however, it arguably took the most difficult step.