Normally, I leave reporting on Real Life space events to my friend Inara Pey, but tonight I just had to write to tell you all about the incredible thing I just saw on live webcast.
Space Exploration Technologies, commonly referred to as SpaceX, is a newcomer to the field of rocket science. But in just a few short years, they have gone from launching their first, small Falcon 1 rocket into orbit to becoming one of the major players in the field of space launch. Their Falcon 9 medium launch vehicle competes with the much more expensive Atlas V, and SpaceX is one of two companies to have contracts with NASA to deliver cargo to the International Space Station using the Falcon 9 and their Dragon cargo capsule. Soon, a man-rated version of the Dragon will carry crew members to and from the space station.
Following a launch failure this summer, SpaceX returned to flight in a big way tonight. A Falcon 9 launched the Orbcomm 2 communications satellite. The launch was successful. "Ho hum," I hear you say, "what's the big deal?"
The big deal is that, once the second stage had separated and was on its way into orbit, the first stage of the Falcon 9 booster re-started its engines. It turned itself around and FLEW BACK to Cape Canaveral. We saw a brilliant sun falling quickly to earth as the rocket slowed, under control of its computers. Four landing legs deployed and the huge cylinder settled to earth in a cloud of smoke and flame. Then the flames died...and there was the booster, sitting on its landing pad...and the engineers in Mission Control erupted in a frenzy of cheering.
This is much more than just a stunt. One of the things holding back our exploration of space is the enormous cost of getting there. And one of the big reasons it's so expensive is that we THROW AWAY the rocket. It's as if you built a Boeing 747, flew it once from New York to London, and then scrapped it. Elon Musk, the visionary entrepreneur behind PayPal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX, has just changed that equation. The cost of getting to space has just dropped by about 90%.
Congratulations to Elon and the SpaceX team. You've just made history.