Mar 31, 2017 | 15:59 GMT

3 mins read

U.S.: SpaceX Marks Milestone Toward Cheaper Space Travel

SpaceX was founded nearly 15 years ago with the goal of revolutionizing space flight by lowering costs through the creation of reusable launch vehicles. On March 30, it finally proved that such a feat is possible by launching the SES-10 satellite into space using one of its own Falcon 9 rockets. The bottom part of the rocket that drops off during launch was used almost a year ago in another mission to resupply the International Space Station before successfully landing on a drone ship off the coast of Florida. This was the first time SpaceX had been able to complete such a landing. No government or organization had ever relaunched a previously flown orbital rocket successfully before yesterday, and again SpaceX was able to land the launch rocket on a drone ship in the Atlantic. It is yet unclear whether it will be used a third time. In another first, SpaceX announced that it recovered the payload fairing, the component of the rocket that protects the payload during launch.

Lowering the costs of spaceflight has been a lofty, universal goal since the space shuttle was first developed in 1970s. By introducing rapid reusability, SpaceX hopes that it can reduce the cost of spaceflight by several orders of magnitude. The rocket launch mechanism is the most powerful, most important and most costly part of any rocket system — accounting for roughly 80 percent of the overall rocket. Simply discarding the rocket system after each use is wildly inefficient, and if SpaceX — or any of its competitors — is able to reuse rockets even just a handful of times, it would significantly reduce the cost of spaceflight.

There are already numerous proposed space missions that have not been undertaken because of prohibitively high costs, and lowering costs will only increase the number of missions proposed and undertaken. Perhaps, the closest on the horizon is a SpaceX mission to Mars. The company hopes to reuse more powerful variants of its rockets to power payloads to Mars and to eventually power human trips to Mars for as little as $200,000. Today such a trip would cost an estimated $10 billion. Though human spaceflight is an important area of development and one that garners much of the public's attention, cheap access to space will enable more research and development missions as well, including exploration on asteroids for the possible mining of water, platinum and other resources. Of course, many of these more ambitious goals won't be complete for at least a decade, if not several. Even so, yesterday's launch was a critical step toward their eventual completion.

Even if SpaceX fails to achieve its goals or is surpassed by its competitors, the mark it will leave on the space industry is indisputable. All of SpaceX's major competitors — United Launch Alliance, Roscosmos State Corp., Blue Origin and others — are either developing or are exploring the possibility of developing reusable rocket systems. Collectively, they will revolutionize the industry. 

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