SpaceX successfully reuses a rocket booster

What’s come down must go up again
IT WAS a nice piece of marketing. The Falcon 9 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 6.27pm on March 30th by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocketry company, had already been into space once. But there was to be no talk of “used” hardware. Instead, insisted the company, the booster was “flight proven”. And in the end, its mission—to deliver a communications satellite into geostationary orbit—went off without a hitch.

PR aside, successfully relaunching a used rocket is another impressive achievement for the firm. When Mr Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, his goal was a drastic cut in the cost of getting things into orbit. He has already delivered, to some extent: launch costs for a satellite on a Falcon 9 are substantially lower than on other rockets. But he has always insisted that cheap spaceflight will only be truly possible once rockets become reusable.

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It is hard to argue. Aside from the Falcon 9, all the rockets flying commercially today are one-shot affairs. No airline would dream of destroying its planes after every flight. Yet once rockets have done their job, they are either dropped into the sea or abandoned in space. SpaceX hopes to change that: after the Falcon 9’s flight-proven first stage had finished firing, it used the small amount of fuel remaining in its tanks to guide itself to a landing aboard a robotic drone-ship waiting in the Atlantic ocean.

Recovering a rocket from orbit is a trick that SpaceX has accomplished several times before. But Thursday night’s flight marked the first time the firm had launched one of those recovered rockets back into space. It is not the first firm to achieve the feat. A rival company, Blue Origin, run by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, successfully relaunched one its New Shepard rockets last year. But SpaceX’s rocket is bigger and more powerful (it can launch things into orbit, which Blue Origin’s rocket cannot)—and it was conducting a mission for a paying customer.

Mr Musk has estimated in the past that full reusability could cut the cost of spaceflight by an order of magnitude or more. After this week’s launch he said that reusing just the first-stage booster (the second stage is still expendable) could cut launch costs by 30%. The extent to which costs can be further reduced depends on exactly how difficult refurbishing the used boosters turns out to be. SpaceX has been tight-lipped on the subject, saying only that it had taken about four months to prepare the rocket for its second flight. Mr Musk has remarked in the past that his eventual goal is to cut that time to less than a day, at least for the Falcon 9’s first stage. (He restated this goal in a tweet, late on Thursday.)

That is an ambitious promise. The Space Shuttle, another reusable spacecraft to have flown to orbit, was supposed to have turnaround times as short as two weeks. In reality it took several months to prepare each orbiter for flight, which is the main reason the Shuttle proved such an expensive boondoggle. Yet SpaceX has delivered on all its promises so far. Mr Musk has very much earned the right to be taken seriously.

Even so, he has a lot on his plate. SpaceX has suffered two launch failures in the past two years. A cargo-delivery flight to the International Space Station (ISS) broke up in flight in 2015, and a rocket carrying a satellite blew up on the launch pad in 2016. Later this year the firm is scheduled to test the Falcon Heavy, a bigger, beefier launcher which, if it works, would be the most powerful rocket in the world. SpaceX has also contracted with NASA to start flying astronauts by 2018, with the eventual goal of ferrying them to and from the ISS. SpaceX also says it is planning to fly two space tourists around the moon next year. And last September, at a conference in Mexico, Mr Musk reminded the world that his long-term aim is the colonisation of Mars.

Mr Musk’s other companies will be taking up his attention, too. Tencent, a Chinese internet giant, has just bought 5% of Tesla, his electric-car firm, which is getting ready to launch its mass-market Model 3. He has made Hyperloop, his scheme for 600mph trains running in nearly-airless tubes, freely available for others to tinker with; SpaceX has built a test track at its California headquarters. Late last year he founded the Boring Company, a tunnelling firm inspired by an idea to reroute city traffic below ground. And on March 27th it emerged that his newest venture, Neuralink, is trying to design a brain-machine interface to allow people to interact with computers purely by thinking. It is not hard to see why Mr Musk might want one of those, given the complexity of running his high-tech business empire. 


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