Why SpaceX's Successful Orbital Rocket Landing is Such a Big Deal

December 29, 2015 | Elizabeth Knowles

SpaceX Orbital Rocket
Photo credit: SpaceX Photos/flickr (public domain)

“Like firing a pencil over the top of a skyscraper and trying to land it on a shoe box on the ground— on a windy day.”

In 1957, the first satellite was sent up into space by the Soviet Union. Sputnik was the first of its kind, but certainly not the last. There were 1,265 active satellites in orbit at the beginning of 2015, and the total market for making and sending satellites into space was $200 billion — an incredibly high number that accounts for over 60 percent of space industry revenue.

Why are satellites so expensive? Only ten countries (or space agencies) have the ability to send them into space — Russia, the US, France, Japan, China, India, Israel, Iran, North Korea, and the European Space Agency (ESA) — and a new rocket has to be used every time.

SpaceX made history on December 21 by engineering the world’s first successful landing of an orbital rocket. Now why is that so revolutionary? As previously mentioned, rockets take satellites, and sometimes people, into space all the time. But, until now, rockets have not been reusable. The United States did have the space shuttle program for a while, but they retired it because it was no longer safe and the costs didn’t match what a reusable spacecraft’s should.

By managing to vertically land the first stage of a rocket back on Earth, SpaceX is transforming the future of space travel. Imagine if every time someone wanted to travel by airplane, we had to use a new one. Nobody would do it because the costs would be astronomical.

SEE ALSO: 3 Scientific Breakthroughs That Will Get Us to Mars 

SpaceX’s feat is the equivalent of a reusable plane. “If SpaceX can create what they call “a fully and rapidly reusable rocket system”— leaving the only launch costs as fuel, maintenance, and interior support systems, just like an airplane — it’ll reduce the cost of space travel by a factor of 100. Maybe more,” according to Wait But Why.

However, given the complexity of what they were trying to do, it would be insane to think that it was going to be easy. Wait But Why says: “If you scale down all the sizes, it’s like firing a pencil over the top of a skyscraper and trying to land it on a shoe box on the ground—on a windy day.”

A reusable rocket will be great for satellites, but also for future astronauts. As it is now, Americans have two choices of whom to travel into space with: the Russians or the Chinese. “It’s like a town with three rival mob bosses, but awkwardly, only two of them have a car, so the third needs to get a ride to work with one of the others. Not ideal for the third boss,” describes Wait But Why. It’s funny, but also true.

If there is hope of travelling to Mars some day, American astronauts will need a rocket of their own. In the past, humans have landed on Earth in one of three ways: with a parachute, with wheels, or using propulsion — landing in water is bad for equipment, landing with wheels doesn’t work without a runway and propulsive landing had only ever been done by a capsule. SpaceX imagines a rocket that could land, refuel and be back in the air again in a matter of hours.

A potential trip to mars has been envisioned using a whole fleet of spacecrafts, launched with the same refuelable stage that travels back and forth between them and Earth. “[T]he Mars Colonial Transporter will consist of two pieces—the giant, powerful first stage, and the second stage, which will also be the spacecraft. The first stage will launch a spacecraft into orbit, then come back down (landing propulsively), refuel, undergo a bit of maintenance, and head back up with another spacecraft.” In fact, SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk foresees one million people travelling to Mars. He sees that as the only way to make a colony sustainable.

Despite the hype, SpaceX wasn’t the first company to land a rocket vertically. Blue Origin did it back in November; however, their rocket went to space, not into orbit (there is a huge difference in terms of distance and direction) and was not carrying an actual payload like SpaceX did, which left SpaceX very little fuel for their descent. So really, Blue Origin’s accomplishment, although great, wasn’t in the same league.

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