Elon Musk’s SpaceX company achieved another historic milestone last night, when it launched another payload into orbital space while re-using its liquid-fueled booster rocket from a previous landing attempt.
Blue Origin, another NewSpace company founded by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk’s main rival, had previously achieved rocket reusability with a suborbital flight. NASA’s own space shuttle with attached rockets was also (mostly) reusable, albeit hideously expensive to operate. However, this achievement is the first time anybody has been able to launch, land, and safely and successfully re-use detachable liquid-fueled booster rockets in orbital flights.
To make the stakes even higher, they were carrying a paid-up customer payload. With obvious relief, pride, and excitement, but typical relentless drive, Elon Musk tweeted: “Incredibly proud of the SpaceX team for achieving this milestone in space! Next goal is reflight within 24 hours.”
The central premise behind Musk’s space evangelism is that human expansion into the solar system and beyond is vital to our species’ long term survival. He further believes that this can only be achieved if space launch costs are dramatically reduced, by re-using what are currently highly expensive and disposable high-technology items. Reducing the turnaround time of launches, thereby increasing the frequency of space flights, will also allow bigger and more sophisticated space construction, habitation, and exploration missions than are currently possible.
Space is hard, and the physics and the economics of space technology are utterly unforgiving. The long delay between this launch and the previous use of the rocket was caused by a catastrophic refueling explosion of a previous SpaceX rocket, and the subsequent investigation. They’ve now set that disaster thoroughly behind them, and set a new benchmark for what is possible when it comes to space technology.
It is amazing to watch SpaceX blazing the way to humanity’s expansion into our solar system.