Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully landed a rocket stage from its Dragon capsule on a drone ship out at sea in 50 mph gusts on Friday, effectively pulling ahead in what has become a modern-day space race.
After separating from the launch rocket, the capsule continued on to the International Space Station to deliver a full load of supplies for NASA – including an inflatable habitat – while the stage one rocket returned to Earth, landing successfully on an unmanned barge out at sea.
Several of SpaceX's attempts at a barge landing over the past year have ended with explosions after making contact with the barge. This time, “the rocket landed instead of putting a hole in the ship — or tipping over — so we’re really excited about that,” Mr. Musk told reporters.
This follows the recent accomplishment from competitor Blue Origin, owned by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, of landing a rocket – for a third time – on Saturday, April 2nd.
This wave of reusable rockets is part of the ongoing race to make space travel more affordable.
Previously, the stage-one rockets – responsible for the initial thrust through Earth’s atmosphere – simply detached after launch and fell into the ocean as waste. By developing methods for reusing rockets, SpaceX stands to save tens of millions of dollars per flight, according to SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell.
While Friday's successful drone landing represents a major step forward towards his goal, Musk looks forward to the time when remote, reusable rocket landings are routine, “when it's like, 'Oh yeah, another landing, OK, no news there.' That's actually when it will be successful,” he told reporters.
While Mr. Bezos’s Blue Origin successfully returned a rocket to dry land, this sea landing is a major accomplishment because of the impact that landing remotely has on the rocket’s fuel usage. At present, the amount of fuel burned in high altitude launches limits the potential for return-to-site landings. Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket, which landed in West Texas, was not reaching nearly the same speed or altitude as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.
If rockets were as reusable as airplanes, it would dramatically lower operating costs and make commercial space travel a reality in the near future – a tantalizing goal for both Jeff Bezos’s and Elon Musk’s companies.
Another key ingredient in space tourism was launched aboard the Dragon capsule when it launched from Cape Canaveral on Friday: the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), an experimental, inflatable module that will be attached to the space station and tested as a precursor to the in-space hotel.
Originally envisaged as part of NASA’s Transhub – which never made it past initial blueprints – the "bubble house" designs were purchased by hotel entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, who developed the concept into his own version of the expandable module.
Astronauts will test BEAM over the next two years to determine its potential as a commercial hotel and eventual use as a habitat on Mars or the moon.
Following Falcon 9’s successful landing, President Obama publicly applauded the effort: