Space exploration is a rich person's game. Every time you see a rocket launched from the Kennedy Space Center, thunderously clawing its way above the Earth's atmosphere, this represents an expenditure of tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars. The cash equivalent of each space shuttle launch was a cube of US dollar bills about 25 feet (8 meters) on a side.
The reason for this is simple. Historically, rockets have been a single-use object -- imagine the cost of commuting to work if you had to buy a new car each day.
Thus, Thursday, March 30, marked what might well be a watershed moment in the annals of rocketry -- one that could greatly increase the prospect of deep space travel. A company named SpaceX successfully reused a rocket to launch a satellite into space.
Founded in 2002 by entrepreneur Elon Musk, SpaceX has been in the vanguard of commercial space exploration. Musk has long been a proponent of colonizing the planet Mars and he has used his considerable wealth to develop reusable rocket technology.
SpaceX's current equipment consists of the Falcon 9 two-stage rocket system and the Dragon payload and crew module. The Falcon 9 lifts the payload into orbit. While the second stage of the rocket is currently designed to fall to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere, for several years SpaceX has been developing the ability to gently land the first stage vertically either on a pad near the launch facility or on platforms floating in the ocean several hundred miles from the launch site.
The first successful land-based landing occurred on December 22, 2015, at LZ-1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, while the first landing on a barge-like ship occurred in the Atlantic on April 8, 2016.
There have been several other successful vertical landings, but none of these rockets had been reused until now. Thursday, SpaceX launched a geostationary communications satellite using a refurbished first stage Falcon 9 booster. The launch not only successfully inserted the satellite into orbit, but the booster again landed as planned on a floating platform located in deep water off the Florida coast.
So, these successes are technically satisfying, but are they important? They most certainly are. In fact, they could be a game-changer.
The reason is simple. The price of the fuel is only about 1% of the total cost of a rocket launch. The rest is the rocket itself, with 70% of the price tied up in the first stage of the booster. Being able to reuse the rocket represents a huge cost savings. Industry estimates suggest that reusing the first stage of the Falcon 9 booster might lead to a 30% reduction in the launch costs.
Thus, the typical cost of a SpaceX launch of $62 million might be reduced to $43 million -- a considerable contribution to the satellite company's bottom line. The cost of Thursday's launch has not been released, but SES, the company owning the satellite that was launched, has said they were interested in an even lower price of $30 million for this first attempt.
SpaceX is developing a viable commercial launch ability, but Musk has not been shy about his ultimate goal of colonizing Mars. In September 2016, he gave a talk to the International Astronautical Congress called "Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species," in which he laid out his vision. One of the key requirements to make that happen is to develop a robust and reliable technology that reuses the rocket components.
Musk has made clear his near-term goal is is to drop the launch costs to 10% of the current costs, with a longer-term goal of dropping the launch price tag to 1%. If successful, a launch that costs $62 million in 2016 will eventually be $620,000.
A viable Martian colonization strategy will require an even greater reduction in the price tag, but this recent development is a key step toward a much grander goal.
On September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave an inspiring speech at Rice University, my alma mater, where he said, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade ... not because (it is) easy, but because (it is) hard."
Kennedy was speaking to Americans, but it was all of humanity that watched raptly on July 20, 1969, as Neil Armstrong took humanity's first halting steps on a heavenly body other than Earth.
The recent SpaceX achievement does not rise to that level of accomplishment, but there is no question that we have achieved a different, but important, step. The day that mankind returns to deep space is that much closer.