A Step Forward for Cheap Space Flight

Elon Musk annouces a small but critical success in reusable rocket boosters.

A SpaceX rocket takes off on a 2012 mission for NASA.
National Journal
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Brian Resnick
April 25, 2014, 9:59 a.m.

Rock­et launches to space are very, very ex­pens­ive. And a lot of that ex­pense is wasted as the rock­et boost­ers burn up in the at­mo­sphere as they re­turn to the ground. Elon Musk, via his com­mer­cial-space­flight com­pany SpaceX, wants to change the math of space travel. The com­pany took a step to­ward that goal last week with a test launch of a re­usable rock­et boost­er that, after de­tach­ing from the main cargo cap­sule, is de­signed to gently land back on Earth.

Dur­ing a Fri­day press con­fer­ence, Musk an­nounced that the re­cent soft-land­ing test of SpaceX’s re­usable rock­et was a sort-of suc­cess. He said that while SpaceX’s data in­dic­ate that the rock­et landed in the ocean ver­tic­ally, with a ve­lo­city of zero (mean­ing it was a soft, up­right land­ing), the boost­er was lost to a storm and 15-foot waves.

“That’s a huge mile­stone for SpaceX and the space in­dustry,” Musk said. “No one has ever soft-landed a li­quid rock­et boost stage be­fore.”

He con­tin­ued, “If we can re­cov­er the stage in­tact and re­launch it, the po­ten­tial is there for a truly re­volu­tion­ary im­pact in space-trans­port costs. The cost of pro­pel­lant is ac­tu­ally only about .3 per­cent the cost of the rock­et, the mis­sion…. There’s po­ten­tial there for a 100-fold im­prove­ment for the cost of ac­cess to space.”

Musk said Space X will con­tin­ue it’s goal of land­ing a re­usable rock­et boost­er on land with the ac­cur­acy of a land­ing heli­copter. The cur­rent test, he said, landed “with­in a few miles of the tar­get,” though “in this case, we were just try­ing to get the rock­et to get at zero ve­lo­city over the wa­ter.” He hopes to land a boost­er back to Cape Canaver­al by the end of the year.

The launch boost­er, Musk says, can cost as much as 70 per­cent of the cost of any launch. So re­cov­er­ing them is es­sen­tial to mak­ing com­mer­cial space­flight af­ford­able.

Here is an an­im­a­tion of what the land­ing should look like.