On New Year’s Eve, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted a tantalizing bit of news in the wake of the company’s historical vertical landing: not only did the company pull off the vertical landing, but the rocket can be used again.
There’s a difference—a pretty big difference—between simply pulling off the vertical landing of the rocket and having that rocket be ready to reuse. And the vertical landing was not the goal, but rather the means to an end: SpaceX wants to get a first stage rocket safely to the ground after an orbital launch so that it can use the same rockets and engines over and over, rather than manufacture the same one over and over.
To SpaceX, it’s the way it can fulfill the promise of driving down the cost of rocket launches, making access to space cheaper and more accessible. But there are some reasons for skepticism as to how much those savings will be. For instance, the space shuttle program focused on reusability with the hope to drive launch costs down, but repair efforts after each launch of the craft left that ambitious goal more and more hard to reach.
In fact, early drafts of the space shuttle program actually called for reusable first and second stage rockets. Even when it managed a modicum of reusability in the stages (often utilizing a water landing, but lacking the thruster firings that give SpaceX a softer landing) the repair costs of those engines was still prohibitive.
Elon Musk says that the Falcon 9 from the recent Orbcomm launch could return to flight if it needed to. But the rocket will be put on display somewhere instead. The company’s next launch is on January 17 from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Should it choose to do a vertical landing, the company will likely put that rocket to refurbishment and another launch. The previous vehicle appeared ready to go from static fire tests performed.
But SpaceX will have to prove that it can repeatedly make launches on the Falcon 9 first stage engine with the sort of minimal repairs and frequent reusability needed to make it a cost effective solution rather than a gimmick. It’s taken the first step toward that, but it will take a second, third, and fourth time to begin to prove the viability of reusability.