SpaceX: Launching an era of reusable rockets?

On Tuesday, SpaceX chief Elon Musk says that the company will relaunch the first of its four successful reusable rockets in September or October.

Craig Rubadoux/Florida Today via AP/File
The media watches as a Space X Falcon 9 rocket lifts off in Cape Canaveral, Fla., in August 2014. SpaceX head Elon Musk said Tuesday that the company will re-launch the first of four successful reusable rockets this fall, a key milestone in efforts to develop more fuel-efficient, less costly reusable spacecraft.

Space X is planning to relaunch its four successful rockets beginning this fall, founder Elon Musk said Tuesday, a plan that could provide a key boost to efforts to spur the use of less costly, recyclable rockets.

After repeated attempts, including one that resulted in a spectacular explosion, the private space flight company successfully landed a rocket at sea on a drone barge in April. So far, it's made three successful sea landings this year.

Landing a rocket at sea is more difficult than on dry land, but it comes with a key bonus: fuel that would ordinarily be used to make a successful landing on land can instead by used to accelerate a rocket’s payload to a higher orbit, Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told the Christian Science Monitor in January.

The sea landings mean SpaceX can offer higher orbits (at higher prices) and put bigger payloads in orbit (for more money) than competitors.

Developing a reusable rocket could also mean the company could save tens of millions of dollars per flight, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s chief operating officer said in March.

While other private companies, such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, have so far focused on landing spacecraft on dry land, the modern space race has also seen some unusual competition from India’s far leaner space agency. Ultimately, the goal is make space travel affordable.

Last month, India's agency successfully launched a miniature prototype of an unmanned reusable capsule. Its cost — only $14 million, with the space agency’s total budget representing only 5 percent of NASA’s annual budget, the Monitor reported.

For SpaceX, the fuel savings have allowed its rockets to launch massive payloads, including a 6,669 pound communications satellite, launched about 22,000 miles above Earth’s surface in May. In April, the company delivered a full load of supplies for the International Space Station, including an inflatable habitat.

But Mr. Musk wasn’t fully satisfied. He’s looking forward to the time when reusable rockets are commonplace, “when it's like, 'Oh yeah, another landing, OK, no news there.' That's actually when it will be successful,” he told reporters in April.

Also in typically ambitious fashion, the tech entrepreneur originally predicted that the rockets would be able to fly again in June, revising the timetable for the first’s rocket’s launch to September or October, he announced via Twitter on Tuesday.

But the task has been daunting. Using a system of stabilizing fins and boosters, the rocket needs to hold stable and avoid spinning while slowing from 3,000 miles per hour to around 500 m.p.h., the Monitor’s Corey Fedde reported.

Sticking such a landing on an autonomous barge, SpaceX once noted, is much like “trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a wind storm.”

SpaceX’s efforts have also gained interest from Luxembourg-based satellite maker SES, which said in February it’s eager to endorse Mr. Musk’s plans to develop commercially viable reusable rockets, possibly even without a test flight.

“They have to work through all the various flight verification tests, etc., but once we get through that, I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t fly on it,” Martin Halliwell, chief technology officer at SES told reporters at Cape Canaveral in February. “Absolutely none.”

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