Since most people enjoyed my last science email, I thought I would share another amazing event that happened last night. As most of you know, I am a huge NASA geek. Well, this is related, but not exactly NASA. SpaceX, for those that are unaware, was the first commercial company to deliver cargo to the international space station on their own internally developed, manufactured and produced “Falcon 9” rocket and Dragon spacecraft. Followed closely behind was the Cygnus spacecraft, operated by Orbital ATK and their own internally developed, manufactured and produced Antares Rocket.


SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon Cargo Spacecraft payload.

Orbital ATK Antares rocket with Cygnus Cargo Spacecraft payload.


Now, what sets SpaceX apart from competition and the rest of the rocket/spacecraft companies is their focus on advancing technologies and doing it profitably. This is a huge advantage of commercial business over government funded programs, but that’s another conversation and I wish not to digress down that path for this email. Before SpaceX and Orbital ATK, it was only Government funded space programs that launched cargo to the ISS. After the Space Shuttles were retired, it was mainly the Russian Space Agency that was responsible for launching both astronauts and supplies. But with the commercial companies, there is now more redundancy built in for contingencies and it’s also driving competition for launch contracts.


Last night, history was made by SpaceX. It was the first time a launch vehicle intended for an orbital trajectory (in this case it was a payload of 11 communication satellites on the second stage) has returned a first stage booster to a landing pad under its own propulsion:


Long exposure of launch, re-entry, and landing burns of Falcon 9 (Credit: SpaceX)



Long Exposure (~10 Mins) showing launch and landing engine burns from Cape Canaveral.

Actual 1st Stage Booster landing at Cape Canaveral.

Falcon 1st Stage Booster Successfully lands at LZ-1 pad.


But Tyler, why spend all this money and time developing a first stage booster that can return and land? Simple, COST!!!! Rocket launches are inherently expensive. For example, the current costs are about $10,000 for every pound of payload to “Low Earth Orbit” (LEO).  This is the altitude that satellites, the ISS, and Spacecraft generally orbit the Earth at. By landing and refurbishing the 1st stage booster and possibly the rocket engines (9 of them on the first stage), you can cut costs down drastically rather than building a new rocket from scratch EVERY TIME. I don’t personally think SpaceX will ever carry humans on a reusable 1st stage, but I think cargo would be an acceptable risk for reusable stages. If we were to launch cargo on a reused stage, we could cut the cost of payloads down to around ~$100/pound. This would completely change the market competition. And open the door to cheaper and cheaper missions and possibly make getting humans to Mars more affordable just in cargo cost alone.


This landing is an amazing feat and was attempted twice before on a barge before unsuccessfully before successfully landing on solid ground last night for the first time. This marks a new age in space rocketry.



Tyler W.