Editorial: The final frontier

SpaceX rings in the era of the reusable rocket

Billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX created history this week when the Falcon 9 rocket-booster landed vertically and touched down gently at Florida’s Cape Canaveral after launching 11 small satellites into a low-earth orbit. This success came after two failures, including one in June when the rocket exploded en route to the International Space Station. This soft landing can change the global space programme and opens the arena for the reusable rockets that Musk and many others, including countries’ space agencies, have been planning for years. What this means is that in the future, rockets can be reused—quite like aircraft today. This is not the first time that a rocket has landed back vertically—Jeff Bezos’ space flight company Blue Origin had landed its New Shephard rocket in November. But, Falcon 9 has gone deeper into space and is capable of carrying a much heavier payload.

The biggest gain from the success of Falcon 9 lies in slashing future satellite launch costs. Musk believes that the cost of accessing space will be reduced by a factor of hundred. Till now, costing $61.2 million on average, rockets were designed to disintegrate after delivering the payload to its orbit and the bits burnt up on re-entry to the atmosphere. Add another $200,000 in fuel costs. Now with the $61.2 million fixed costs out of the way, reusable rockets could herald the era of cheap space travel in the not-too-distant future. The Falcon 9 rocket, however, is not going back to space. The credit for that would perhaps go to one of the rockets that SpaceX plans to launch in 2016. While the landing has been achieved, now Musk needs to work out a mechanism to ensure that this is a routine phenomenon.

SpaceX needs to see how long it takes to refurbish the recovered rocket and get it to fly again. Once there are enough rockets back from space, the company could draw out a timetable for future launches. The coming era of reusable rockets means that it will be possible to send people and cargo into space with only fuel and maintenance costs to consider. Musk has company—for commercial space travel aspirations—in Bezos and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. His achievement should, at a larger level, lead to private commercial space flights soon. For a man who wants to colonise Mars, this could be the first step to decide where humans live in the future. The opportunities that this opens up are limitless, now that companies are looking to mine minerals from asteroids and tourists to start travelling for space holidays.

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