SpaceX just did something nobody has ever done before. In an absolutely spectacular launch on the winter solstice, the company not only returned to flight after a half-year hiatus, they did so in style, for the first time ever returning the first stage of a rocket to the launchpad safe and sound.
Shortly after the main engine cutoff at its designated time, the first stage performed the “boostback,” slowing itself back down and beginning its descent. Guided by grid fins and slowed again by a series of burns, it came in at what was certainly a planned speed (but which looked absolutely terrifying, I can tell you) and performed the “hoverslam,” coming to rest at zero meters per second at zero altitude. We all held our breaths waiting for it to tip over or explode, but there it’s sitting, in one piece, safe and sound.
The second stage continued on to orbit at 17,000 miles per hour, releasing all eleven of Orbcomm’s satellites into their respective orbits, completing the primary objective of the mission.
I can’t stress how fundamentally this changes things. With a reusable first stage, Elon Musk’s rocketry company will soon have the lowest cost to orbit anyone has ever been able to offer. We’re talking an order of magnitude. Everyone’s comparing it to plane flights: imagine every time you wanted to cross the Atlantic, you had to scrap the plane. Now imagine how much cheaper it is if you get to reuse it once, twice, ten, or a hundred times.
I feel like I just watched Mohammad Ali winning the Rumble in the Jungle. The thing they said was impossible they’ve done.
Happy winter solstice, indeed.
Update (22 Dec 2015): Check out the footage below. First the landing as we saw it live, then the footage from the helicopter. Such an amazing achievement. Also see this wonderful photograph by Jared Haworth showing the launch and the landing burns.
Richard Ford Burley is a writer and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.