Yesterday SpaceX released video footage taken by a Falcon 9 rocket as it successfully completed a vertical landing test.
This test was very different from all the others before it however.
This Falcon 9 vertical landing was conducted over the ocean AFTER it had just successfully launched a Dragon capsule on a resupply mission to the International Space Station.
The image above was retrieved from the damaged video and shows white caps and other water disturbance from rocket thrust on the ocean surface as the Falcon 9 successfully completed its “landing” maneuver.
An event like this has huge implications for the future of space exploration, but sadly I think most people are missing it.
What SpaceX has managed to do is successfully test “land” their 1st stage during REAL mission conditions and altitude. This proves the feasibility of their vertical landing technology to a much greater extent.
Also, all of that data gathered in the process will likely lead to a successful landing on actual land in the very near future though I suspect they may have a few more vertical splashdowns before that happens.
If you are not familiar with the reuse everything approach of SpaceX then I encourage you to watch the following video:
A typical launch includes 3 stages and SpaceX has bold plans to be able to recover all 3 in vertical landings. I have to admit when I first saw videos like this a year or two ago I laughed. It looked like the stuff of bad science fiction. I was only somewhat impressed by all the videos of successful “Grasshopper” tests that followed and its ability to scare cows.
Now, I’m a believer.
Why is this so huge? Well, Falcon 9 and Dragon are already dramatically cheaper (though with far less cargo capacity) than the retired Space Shuttle even before factoring in recovery and reuse.
The Space Shuttle was only partially recoverable with the solid rocket boosters (SRB) always splashing down in the ocean. The SRBs though surprisingly reusable would splashdown at 76 ft/sec into seawater and recovered by 2 specially designed ships and a sea faring crew and transported 130nm according to Wikipedia.
All 3 stages of Falcon 9 and Dragon could conceivably land where desired at a much lower velocity making recovery, re-conditioning and reuse much cheaper. According to the SpaceX blog:
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket currently carries a list price of about $54 million. However, the cost of fuel for each flight is only around $200,000—about 0.4% of the total. … Following the commercial model, a rapidly reusable space launch vehicle could reduce the cost of reaching Earth orbit by a hundredfold.
The next biggest hurdle for SpaceX to overcome will be a vertical landing of the second stage which may prove to be much more difficult because a heat shield is needed to slow the stage and keep the fuel cool before re-lighting the engine.
Now if a similar approach can be used with a vehicle like Falcon Heavy with a carrying capacity on par with the Space Shuttle then the next decade of space exploration will be very exciting to say the least. A new space station by 2024 and maybe even a manned mission to Mars seem almost inevitable at this rate.