Image: SpaceX

SpaceX Is the World’s Most Interesting Space Company Again

With Monday’s successful mission, we can stop talking about the distractions of the last six months and start focusing on successful launches again.

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Dec 22 2015, 4:03pm

Image: SpaceX

SpaceX is back in business. Monday night's historic launch and landing of Elon Musk's new, more powerful Falcon 9 rocket ticked off every box the company needed to prove to the world that its June mission failure was an anomaly.

And thank goodness. In the intervening months, SpaceX's story has been filled with distractions: Regulatory fights with competitors (both nonexistent and real), hyperloop test tracks, patent disputes, employment lawsuits, public spats with competitor Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin, and fanciful discussion of pizza parlors on Mars and internet connections beamed down from space.

Each of those stories—save for when the lawyers got involved—kept fans emotionally invested in the world's most interesting space company. But each of those possibilities is completely moot without a functioning rocket. With Monday's launch, SpaceX needed to prove that it had fixed the faulty strut that caused its June explosion.

The margins in the spaceflight game aren't that great to begin with. If your $90 million rocket explodes with a payload worth perhaps several times more than that, well, you can only eat that cost and reputation hit so many times. There's a reason why SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said in August that the prospect of another failure "keeps [her] up at night."

Shotwell knew a lot—perhaps the life of the company—was riding on this flight, and so did everyone else. Marco Caceres, a space industry analyst at the Teal Group, told me in June that a pattern of failures would undermine the credibility the company has spent the last several years building up.

"One failure is not a tragedy," he said. "These things happen occasionally. The key is that it not become a pattern."

Another failure wouldn't have just been catastrophic for SpaceX, it would have been catastrophic for the United States's near-term space future. It's hard to imagine NASA would have allowed astronauts to board a SpaceX Dragon capsule to the International Space Station if the Falcon 9 have failed in back-to-back missions. NASA's entire plan is to basically give up low-Earth orbit to the commercial sector. If one of the most important space companies were to have gone kaput, it would have reverberated across the industry.

These are hypotheticals we don't have to think about for now. Safely returning to flight was priority number one. Landing the rocket was a secondary objective but nearly just as important for the long-term prospects of the company—reusable rockets could completely change the economics of spaceflight, and the successful landing of a Falcon 9 first stage is arguably the most impressive achievement in the history of commercial spaceflight.

Now, when Elon Musk talks about space internet or settling Mars or changing the economics of spaceflight with reusable rockets, we can take him seriously again.

After Monday's launch, it was Bezos, not Musk, looking like the petty one on Twitter. Bezos's "welcome to the club" tweet last night was nuts, as if someone who had built a Lincoln Log cabin had the audacity to throw shade at someone who, weeks later, built the real deal. Bezos beat Musk to the punch timewise, and Blue Origin may very well become a real SpaceX competitor, but for the moment it has landed a shorter, slower, less powerful, single stage rocket on a test mission. The accomplishments don't even register on the same achievement scale, if such a thing were to exist. SpaceX's Falcon 9 is much taller, travels much faster, and reaches twice the altitude of Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket, meaning it's several orders of magnitude more difficult to land.

But billionaires snipping at each other is neither here nor there. What matters is that SpaceX did what it was supposed to do. For now, there will be no more crash reports or talk of failed engine struts, just excitement about the company's next launch, which will come in a matter of weeks, not months.