It was a scene straight out of a science fiction movie.
Elon Musk's SpaceX launched one of its Falcon 9 rockets into space and a few minutes later the first stage booster glided smoothly to a hover before landing on a floating droneship in the Atlantic Ocean, 200 miles offshore of the Cape Canaveral. The rocket's main component landed upright on a barge the size of a football field while dealing with 50 mph winds. History was made on April 8.
The barge was anchored, still the ocean is the ocean.
"Landing a rocket vertically on a barge is really, really hard,” said Ray Lugo, director of the University of Central Florida’s Florida Space Institute. “It’s like a pilot landing on an aircraft carrier. It's a lot harder than landing on a runway. The barge is rolling and pitching in the water. You have to bring in a vehicle [rocket or airplane] in a controlled manner and land it softly. I was confident they would have success eventually. It wasn’t about if, but when."
In four previous attempts, the SpaceX first stage rocket managed to hit its target but tipped over on the deck and exploded. The historic sea landing was a crucial milestone, as SpaceX attempts to show that rockets can be recovered and reused, making launches more affordable.
"The rocket landed instead of putting a hole in the ship or tipping over," Musk said with a laugh at a follow-up news conference. Not since Steve Jobs has an American engineer/inventor/entrepreneur so captured the country's collective imagination.
"It will still take us a few years to make that smooth and make it efficient, but I think it's proven that it can work," Musk, 44, related. "There will probably be some failures in the future, but we will iron those out and get it to the point where it is routine to bring it back. The rocket will be washed, tested, fired ten times and refueled for another launch in June."
The Falcon 9's mission was to place a Dragon spacecraft into orbit and deliver almost 7,000 pounds of cargo, including the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (an inflatable space habitat) to the International Space Station. The technology could change the way astronauts live in space. SpaceX plans to ferry NASA astronauts to the ISS in 2017.
Upstart SpaceX is now on the verge of being the first spacecraft company to reuse rocket hardware since NASA's Space Shuttle. They have clearly beaten behemoths Boeing and Lockheed Martin-- the one-time monopolists in America spaceflight-- to the punch in the "race to reusable" booster rockets. In April SpaceX’s winning bid of $82.7 million for a Global Positioning System satellites launch was 40 percent below what the Air Force had estimated the mission might cost.
Last December SpaceX returned the first stage of its 15-story Falcon 9 booster rocket back to earth for a soft touchdown at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Its mission was to deliver 11 commercial satellites into orbit for customer ORBCOMM. As of early May, SpaceX has launched 29 rockets, carrying a variety of payloads to multiple destinations.
Reinventing the world
Space has fascinated Musk since he was a boy growing up in Pretoria. The son of a South African father and Canadian mother, by age 12, he had designed and sold the video game Blastar. In 1989, Musk moved to Canada to attend Queen’s University, he left to study business and physics at the University of Pennsylvania.
After moving to Silicon Valley, Musk launched the software company Zip2 in 1995, which provided maps and business directories to online newspapers. Four years later, at age 28, he sold it for $307 million. He co-founded the online payment system PayPal which lit up e-commerce and was acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion in October 2002. Then Musk created Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, with the intention of building reusable spacecraft for commercial space travel.
When Musk is not at SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., he is running Tesla, an electric vehicle company, and Solar City, a provider of clean, affordable solar power. Musk took Tesla public in 2010 and became a multi-billionaire. His net worth was $14.3 billion as of early May. Tesla's Model S was honored as the 2013 Car of the Year by Motor Trend magazine.
So what's Musk's end game? "Occupy Mars." Yes, you read that correctly. It's plastered on T-shirts his employees wear at SpaceX's vast factory near Los Angeles that employs 4,000 people. Musk is fixated on colonizing Mars. In late April, the company announced it could launch an unmanned "Red Dragon" mission as soon as 2018. It's a 33.9 million mile journey to the Red Planet.
To get there SpaceX will use the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle-- basically the Falcon 9 but with two huge booster rockets mounted its sides. The long-awaited Falcon Heavy could make its debut late this year with a launch from the Kennedy Space Center. The Red Dragon mission would demonstrate the company’s ability to take large payloads to Mars, as well as acquire data. A vital workhorse for future missions, Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two. Musk sees colonizing Mars as "life insurance," in case a natural event such as an asteroid impact or some human action destroyed civilization on Earth.
"I'm hopeful the first people could be taken to Mars in a dozen years or less, I think it's certainly possible for that to occur," Musk said. "But the thing that matters long term is to have a self-sustaining city on Mars, to make life multi-planetary. You back up your hard drive, maybe we should back up life, too."
Ocean landings easier
This should be a very busy year for SpaceX with as many as a dozen flights possible by the close of the year. So, mastering ocean landings is critical. And as strange as it sounds, ocean landings aren't as complicated as returning to land. A ground landing requires the rocket to turn around and propel itself back to land after releasing the second stage rocket. This maneuver uses a lot more fuel. However, a SpaceX's drone ship can position itself in an ideal place in the ocean to "catch" the spacecraft on its more natural path back to Earth.
Simply put, the primary rocket booster travels less distance to get back to earth. This is key with heavier payload or a high orbit that needs extra acceleration during the initial ascent. In either scenario, the Falcon 9 might not have enough spare fuel to get back to land. Traditionally, launch vehicles are single-use. When the first stage separates it falls off, and either burns up in the atmosphere or drops into the sea. Imagine disposing of each airplane after its initial flight. By launching the same rockets multiple times, the cost would be less expensive and the flights more frequent.
The focus on reusable technology has slashed costs-- the company claims it can ferry an astronaut to the space station for $20 million, versus the $70 million charged by Russia's Soyuz rocket. A single Falcon 9 costs about $60 million to build, and only $200,000 to fuel. Totally up the cost of recovering, refurbishing, and refueling a rocket for the next launch, SpaceX expects reusable rockets to reduce the launch cost by about 30 percent. So that becomes an even better economical option for the global commercial launch market.
"I think the sea landing is a really good milestone for the future of spaceflight and another step towards the stars," Musk related. "In order to really open up access to space, we've got to be able to achieve full and rapid reusability. Being able to do that for the primary rocket booster is going to be a huge impact."