Paving the way for a sharp drop in launch costs that is a key part of its long-term plan to carry passengers to Mars, SpaceX became the first space company to use a recycled rocket to send a payload into orbit.
A rocket was sent into orbit using a main booster stage that first flew on April 6 last year by the Los Angeles-based company. Laying the groundwork for using each of its rockets 10 times or more, it also succeeded in landing the same rocket stage for a second time.
The latest mission was called “an amazing day for space as a whole, for the space industry. It means you can fly and refly an orbit class booster,” by Elon Musk, the company’s founder.
A critical part of SpaceX’s attempt to reduce the cost of reaching orbit and expanding the market for private space flight has been fnding a way to reuse its rockets. “It’s been 15 years to get to this point. It’s taken us a long time, a lot of difficult steps along the way,” Musk said.
After the booster of one of its New Shepard rockets flew for a second time early last year, Blue Origin, the private space company of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, was the first to reuse a rocket. After that there were three occasions that the same rocket was used. But short of the orbit that SpaceX reaches, Blue Origin’s rocket is designed to send a payload only to the edge of space.
SpaceX said the first stage accounted for about 80 per cent of the cost of one of its Falcon 9 rockets with nine Merlin engines and a fuel tank that stands 14 storeys high. In an indication of the huge costs of using a rocket only once the company put the total cost of a launch of a non-reusable rocket at $62m, of which only some $200,000-$300,000 is the cost of fuel.
Reusing the rocket could cut the cost of a flight by 30 per cent, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s chief operating officer, has estimated. The company said that eventually the price of a ticket to Mars could be brought down to $100,000 by getting the full use out of its rockets. “We’re not one-way trip to Mars people,” Ms Shotwell said.
SpaceX said that only four months of that time was needed to test and refit the rocket to get it ready for a second flight even though it has taken nearly a year to put the rocket into space a second time. To enable to make reuse a routine as it is today for aircraft, the goal was to reduce this turnround time to less than a day, Shotwell said.
Even though Musk has said future rocket systems may be redesigned to reuse this section as well, SpaceX does not attempt to recover the upper, second stage of its rocket.
SpaceX has taken a 20-year lease on launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida where the first human flight to the moon began and Thursday’s launch was made from there.