Yesterday SpaceX landed a first stage on a deck barge in the Atlantic, in heavy seas and high winds. That was a historic moment, at least as important as, for example, the Gemini rendezvous, and probably at least as confusing to explain. Most of the world, if my facebook feed is any indication, didn't notice, or didn't understand. Many, if comment threads are any indication, didn't even believe it had happened at all.
As landmark firsts in human spaceflight go, the first suborbital spaceflight, the first orbital spaceflight, the first orbital rendezvous, the first lunar orbit, the first lunar landing, the first deployment of a lunar rover, the first shuttle launch, Skylab, the ISS, Virgin Galactic's X Prize win, and the first SpaceX flight that wasn't paid for with Elon Musk's personal funds are pretty key. This one is at least as important, and it opens the door to a whole host of possibilities.
Now, I'm aware that's a pretty bold statement. In fact, last night I was arguing with a friend in a bar, and he told me outright that I didn't know what I was talking about and that I must have just read some breathless press release from Elon Musk.
Let me begin with the more facile justifications, and then move on to the more technical explanations of why this is so important.
First. A commercial enterprise just successfully landed the first stage of a rocket they designed and built themselves on a ship in the Atlantic and recovered it for reuse. They did not do this for the sake of whimsy. They're a commercial enterprise. They did it for profit.
Where's the profit? Well, imagine Delta Airlines had to remain solvent while throwing away every airplane they used after every flight and building a new one from scratch. The SpaceX Falcon 9 costs about as much as a 747. Every component of the entire Saturn V system that put men on the moon was discarded or destroyed or rendered inoperable in the process of doing its job. At risk of engaging in (not much) exaggeration, the human mind is not designed to understand the costs involved in that sort of thing.
The reason SpaceX can remain solvent, even with an eight percent failure rate (which would in itself sink an airline, but is the lowest of any space program in the world) is because spaceflight is so hideously, ludicrously expensive that anyone who wants to do it is saving money by contracting with them, because their systems are the newest and their costs per pound of payload are already the cheapest. Now their clients (mostly governments) are saving even more.
I hear you say, “but William, they're not really a business. They use taxpayer dollars.” Let me address that.
Is Lockheed Martin a business? They make money almost exclusively from inflated government contracts. They provide little of substance for absurd amounts of taxpayer money. This is because in the majority of cases you can't sell military equipment to civilians. Lockheed Martin contracts with governments and provides a product. SpaceX contracts with governments because traditionally, they have been nearly the only organizations that could afford to pay for or provide heavy lift spaceflights. This landing and recovery changes the game completely.
Now, it's true that the cost savings here, while great, don't lower the price of an orbital flight by a huge amount just yet, but this is a proof-of-concept done operationally. This flight provided supplies to the ISS (including another landmark, an inflatable habitat) by lofting a capsule theoretically capable of supporting humans, and while the second stage is still discarded, including its expensive rocket engine, the next step is to land that stage as well. Eventually, the capsule will also be landed.
As background to this, you may recall the Apollo recoveries. Maybe you've seen one of the recovered capsules in a museum. Having run a few contracts in those places, I've been to Huntsville and Kennedy, and I've seen a few myself. They're destroyed. This is because a parachute recovery is actually just a crash you can walk away from. The next step, which has engineering hurdles which were not insurmountable in the seventies and are less so now, was to recover the craft. The Space Shuttle was designed to do this.
The Shuttle, or STS, made compromises though, and it ended up costing more than expected, with longer turnaround times. It had to carry its wings up with it. It had to replace a massive area of re-entry tiles constantly. It had to carry flight control systems it only used on landing. It had to carry its ascent engines for the whole flight. It discarded its boosters into saltwater (and eventually recovered them damaged). It discarded its main tank during every ascent. The cost savings ended up being marginal to nonexistent.
The Orion system NASA is currently contracting with other commercial enterprises to produce discards every component of its launch system just like Apollo and STS did, though the Solid Rocket Boosters, the same ones STS used, are recoverable, but they have to be pulled out of the ocean and rebuilt. The Orion capsule recovery is still a glorified crash. Everything about this (admittedly wonderful system I'm actually really excited about) is an outlay.
The Falcon/Dragon has already landed a first stage twice, once on a boat. The cost savings are substantial and verified. The systems aren't finished yet, but this landing is a symbol of the fact that they will be. Eventually, the Dragon capsule, manned, will land the same way this first stage did, and the same way the second stage eventually will, and it will be recovered, turned around, and reused, just like a commercial aircraft. It won't crash at just the right speed for humans to survive. It'll land.
I want to get into the commercial implications of this, including the economics of near and far-future resource extraction in space and why it's affordable, even lucrative, even compared to doing so on Earth—a topic better people than me have explored in depth, with the conclusion that once you have the infrastructure in place (which this landmark builds the underpinnings for), it's actually comparatively trivial—but that's for a later post.