Ever since the dawn of the Space Age, rockets blasting off the launch pad have climbed a few hundred miles to deliver their payloads into orbit, then fallen back to earth where they either burn up in the atmosphere or plunge into the sea, never to fly again. That has made launching even the smallest spacecraft exorbitantly expensive; it's also been a major obstacle to the development of a commercial spaceflight industry. But with the successful launch and retrieval this week of a privately owned reusable rocket booster, all that may be about to change.
The rocket built by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. — better known as SpaceX — soared into the sky Monday atop a pillar of flame to insert 11 commercial satellites into orbit. But then instead of plummeting to destruction, it turned around and used the thrust of its engines to make a perfect landing on a pad 200 miles from its launch site. It was the first time any large rocket has succeeded in making a controlled landing after delivering a payload into orbit. Company employees monitoring the maneuver burst into applause when the rocket gently touched down.
The mission realized a long-held dream of science fiction writers to witness a rocket take off vertically from its launch pad and return to land the same way, a feat many experts once thought impossible. But today's explosion of technology has accustomed us to life imitating art, and the science fiction of one generation can quickly become the everyday reality of the next.
If SpaceX's engineers can perfect the technology to make its reusable rockets as reliable and safe as air travel is today, the costs of launching satellites, scientific experiments and even people into orbit could fall dramatically, opening the way for a huge expansion of the commercial exploitation of space. That's because the most expensive part of a rocket is its main-stage booster, whose loss has to be factored into the price customers pay to fling their spacecraft into orbit. The introduction of reusable boosters that can fly as often as commercial airliners do now promises to usher in a whole new era of space flight.
NASA pioneered the concept of reusable spacecraft with its Space Shuttle program begun in the 1970s. Despite the loss of two of the craft and their crews over the years, the shuttle fleet flew a total 135 missions and spent more than 1,322 days in orbit between 1981 and 2011, when the program finally ended. The shuttle fleet, which was based on technology developed in the 1960s, never quite fulfilled its builders' promise of a cheaper, reusable space transportation system with a quicker turnaround time than conventional rockets. But it did succeed in making spaceflight more routine, and in the years since, NASA has played a major role in encouraging private companies to develop boosters and spacecraft that can take the concept to the next level.
It's worth recalling that NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, played a similar role in the development of the nascent U.S. commercial airline industry during the 1920s and '30s. In addition to conducting basic aeronautical research, the agency developed a national network of air routes and navigation aids, established safety standards and made data collected in its wind tunnels available to airplane manufacturers so they could improve their products. The agency's close collaboration with private business in part led to the rapid expansion of the U.S. airline industry after World War II.
NASA hopes to have a similar impact on the commercial space flight industry through its work with start-up companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic as well as with the traditional aerospace giants like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. There's no disputing that rocket science is formidably hard — SpaceX's first two attempts to land a reusable booster both ended in fiery explosions — but American ingenuity has overcome such challenges before. Regardless of whatever setbacks may still lie ahead (and there surely will be some) SpaceX's achievement this week marks the beginning of a new era in the commercial exploitation of space, and there's no turning back.