During the golden age of science fiction in the 1940s and 50s—the heyday of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke—the writers of speculative fiction imagined humanity spreading from Earth to the moon and beyond. They described entrepreneurs and scientists reaching space to find their fortunes and adventure. Such authors imagined that the final frontier would be opened in the same way that the western frontier had been in America.
But in 1969 when Americans finally made it to the moon, it wasn’t thanks to entrepreneurs or scientists fiddling in their garages. Instead, the moon landing was the result of a massive government program costing billions of dollars. Even science fiction authors hadn’t imagined space would cost so much—or that only the government would do it. Science fiction became science fact, but not quite in the way that it was imagined.
Finally, in the early twenty-first century, that is starting to change thanks to several entrepreneurs who grew up reading science fiction and have gotten tired of waiting for the government to fulfill their dreams.
Take SpaceX, a California-based company founded by Elon Musk. His stated goal is to build rockets that will let humanity colonize Mars. When SpaceX began in 2002, not many people took him seriously. After ten successful flights of the company’s Falcon 9, along with three cargo trips to and from the International Space Station, no one is laughing any more.
And when SpaceX launched their last Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station, they managed to do something that had never been done before: they brought the first stage of the Falcon 9 back down to a soft landing.
Until now, the first stages of rockets have always just fallen away and been destroyed on impact. For instance the first stage of the mighty Saturn V that took Americans to the moon plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean, where it has lain ever since–until Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com funded an expedition that recovered a couple of the engines from that booster for display in a museum.
Unlike the Space Shuttle which required thousands of workers to refurbish it after each flight, with the Falcon 9 SpaceX is creating a launch vehicle that is fully reusable in the same way that an airliner is reusable. Jet aircraft are not disassembled and rebuilt after each flight. Their engines are not removed and reconditioned after each trip across the country. A jet is simply refueled, given a new pilot and crew, and off it goes again. Likewise, the Falcon 9 first stage will fly back to its launch site, land, be refueled, and be ready for re-flight right away.
The cost of the fuel needed to launch a Dragon to orbit is around 250 thousand dollars. It costs less than 50 million dollars to build each Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule—compared to a new Boeing 787 which will set you back about 212 million dollars. Obviously, if all the bits of a Falcon 9 can be reused over and over, the cost of launching something to orbit will drop immensely and perhaps would approach the cost of a cross-country airplane trip.
Even without reusability, a Falcon 9 launch costs about half that of any of its competitors. Each Dragon capsule is already reusable: currently they float back on parachutes, though soon they will land propulsively, like the rockets you see in the old 1950s movies.
On April 18, following first stage separation, the second stage took Dragon the rest of the way into orbit. The first stage then fired thrusters, stabilized and dropped back toward the Atlantic Ocean in a controlled way. Landing legs deployed as it neared the water. A few hundred feet up, one of the first stage engines reignited and brought the first stage softly down to hover just above the water before plunking in. Had it been coming back over land, it would have landed upright on its legs, ready to be reused. Since this was just a test of the landing system, it then plunked into the ocean—which, unfortunately, was suffering from extremely bad weather and thirty foot swells, so that the stage sank and could not be recovered. Still, this test of the first stage recovery system was entirely successful. And consider: seventy percent of the launch cost comes from the first stage. Recover that, and you save yourself a bundle on each launch.
Twenty-nine seconds of very poor quality video from a camera peering down the side of the first stage was recovered during the landing. SpaceX released the raw, scrambled video file on their website. Hundreds of people then downloaded it and thanks to the efforts of this “crowd-sourcing” the results were astounding. From what appeared to be entirely scrambled digital data, these volunteers on the internet were able to recover clear video of the landing legs unfolding and the booster’s slow descent into a stormy ocean.
SpaceX will again attempt a soft landing of the first stage when their next Falcon 9 launches sometime in early July. By early 2015 they expect to regularly land their boosters back at the Kennedy Space Center.
The vision of the early science fiction authors of entrepreneurs leading humanity into space like the pioneers of old seems not to have been wrong after all—merely delayed.