This is the one they’re sending up again! | Photo: SpaceX, CC0 (public domain)
On Thursday (weather permitting), SpaceX is going to re-launch a rocket. That is amazing.
Now if you mention this to some of your friends they might respond with “I thought they already did that,” or “didn’t that Amazon guy already do that?” No, you can tell them. And no.
When you break down what SpaceX is doing, you might start to think it sounds less impressive.
SpaceX will be the first company to reuse a liquid-fueled rocket to carry cargo to orbit.
NASA reused solid-fuel rockets on the space shuttle—remember the white ones on either side? Those were resuable—but (a) NASA isn’t a company, (b) they were solid-fuel boosters, and (c) the shuttle cost a billion dollars a launch because of the refurbishment necessary. Yes, Jeff Bezos’s (“that Amazon guy’s”) rocketry company Blue Origin has reused rockets, but they don’t go to orbit. It’s much, much harder to go sideways fast enough to launch something into orbit, then come back in one piece, than it is to just go up and come back down. It’s the sideways that makes you burn up if you’re not careful (hence the guy who parachuted from the edge of space and didn’t become a charcoal briquette).
But let’s be clear about this: This is a HUGE DEAL.
This rocket already took something the the International Space Station. And now it’s taking something else to orbit. And it’s going to try to land so it can be used again.
Even if the Space Shuttle was reusable (and that’s a dodgy claim when you think about all the parts they had to replace), the Shuttle was a terrible way to get payload to orbit. It was a brilliant piece of technology, yes, and without the ISS it was a fantastic temporary orbiting science lab. But it was also an incredible amount of mass to get into orbit, even if it was empty. In terms of what it could carry, it could get 8,400 lb to GTO, the orbit SpaceX will be sending SES-10 to this week. The Falcon 9 can carry 18,300 lb to GTO. Plus the Shuttle cost (as I say) roughly a billion dollars to turn around and re-launch. Making a profit, SpaceX is charging around $62 million for a trip. And if this goes well, that price is going to come down to below $50 million a launch. Possibly much lower. That’s millions and millions of dollars cheaper than any other company’s alternative.
If this week’s reuse launch goes well, and if they can get the cadence of reuse up to Musk’s idealized “every two weeks,” then we’re going to see something in rocketry we’ve never seen before: economies of scale.
If this goes well, we’ll be entering a new golden age of rockets, spurring innovation in space technology the likes of which we’ve never even attempted as a species.
If this goes well, it’s going to be amazing.
So hold on to your hats.
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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as Deputy Managing 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.