Today, SpaceX, the rockety tentacle of Elon Musk’s giant many headed technology hydra did some amazing things. First, they launched a spacecraft into orbit on the top of a chemical rocket and it didn’t blow up. Don’t kid yourself, no matter how many times we do this, it’s always tricky. And now that spacecraft, called Dragon, is on it’s way to the International Space Station where it will dock some time on Sunday, bringing with it all kinds of sciencey goodness (also not easy, FYI). But, of course, the big news is that the first stage of that rocket fell back to Earth and, instead of being destroyed, landed successfully on a goddamned drone barge in the middle of the goddamned ocean! What?! Are you kidding? Check out the video here.
Landing from the chase plane pic.twitter.com/2Q5qCaPq9P
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) April 8, 2016
Now while both Jeff Bezos’s company Blue Orgin and SpaceX have landed rockets safely on land in the past, this landing was accomplished on a so-called “drone ship”, an unmanned barge off the coast of Central Florida. This method is key to re-usablity because it allows for rockets to be recovered when it’s not physically possible to return to the launch site or, most importantly, in the case of high velocity missions which can place satellites in much higher orbits.
This isn’t just cool (and it is very freakin’ cool), it’s ground breaking stuff. Why? Because space is expensive. Designing, building and launching rockets is still very much the realm of high technology and high finance. It can cost many millions to bring it to fruition. And, until today, it has been a largely disposable deal. With the notable exception of the US Space Shuttle program (which had a recoverable orbiter and solid rocket boosters), all of the world’s spacecraft have pretty much been single use affairs. Imagine if every time you drove your Prius to the grocery store it was destroyed in a fiery explosion and then sank to the bottom of the ocean or smashed into the Russian steppe. Not only would this be jarring, it would discourage you from running to the store for a tube of cookie dough because you’re so fucking high right now.
This, of course, makes the whole affair much cheaper. How much cheaper? Well we all know the government is very hinky when it comes to accounting, but let’s just take the Space Shuttle as an example. When that program began in 1972 it was estimated that each launch would cost about $22 million. By 2010 that cost had ballooned to about $1.6 billion per launch. The estimated cost of a Dragon launch is said to be somewhere in the $61 million range. That’s a huge savings.
Look this isn’t exactly Zefram Cochrane testing the first warp drive and we shouldn’t expect the Vulcans to show up and make first contact in Florida (God I hope not… not there), but it’s another step in reclaiming space exploration and, eventually, space travel as well. SpaceX is developing our next crew launch vehicle and the recoverable rocket is a big part of making that program affordable, safe and a reality. So well done SpaceX, NASA and mindless, cybernetic drone ship. You’re all aces!
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