SpaceX’s first resupply mission to the International Space Station since last year’s explosive failure wasn’t just a success — it marked the beginning of a new era in human spaceflight. After several near misses, the Falcon 9 rocket delivered its payload to orbit, then successfully landed on a drone ship, ready for refurbishment and reuse. This is the first time anyone has managed such a feat, and no one else is even close.
The launch on Friday afternoon went by the book from start to finish with none of the delays we’re used to seeing with important launches. The Dragon capsule in the second stage of the rocket carried more than 7,000 pounds of supplies to the space station, including the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, a test platform for expandable habitats in space that will add 565 cubic feet of additional space to the ISS. It’s mostly an experiment, so astronauts won’t be spending a lot of time in the new module. The Dragon capsule successfully linked up with the ISS over the weekend.
On any other day, this would have been the highlight of NASA’s commercial resupply program. However, SpaceX also took the opportunity to attempt another vertical landing with the Falcon 9 first stage. It previously managed to land the Falcon 9 on the ground following a launch late last year, but it blew up a few rockets attempting water landings before and since. Friday’s attempt was the first time it worked.
Most launch vehicles are single-use; the first stage falls off and drops into the ocean, meaning each future launch needs an entirely new rocket. A single Falcon 9 costs about $60 million, but the fuel for a launch is just $200,000. When you figure in the cost of recovering, refurbishing, and refueling a rocket for reuse, SpaceX estimates it can reduce costs by about 30%. That would make the Falcon 9 a much less expensive way to reach space. It’s hard to see how any other private space firm can compete with that.
As for the drone ship, that’s the key to SpaceX’s plans. Landing on solid ground is easier, but only once you get there. A ground landing requires the rocket to turn around and propel itself back to land after releasing the second stage. That wastes a lot of fuel, but a drone ship can be positioned downrange (as this one was in the Atlantic) to essentially “catch” the rocket. When a heavier payload is being launched, the Falcon 9 might not even have enough spare fuel to get back to land, so the drone ship gives SpaceX the most flexibility in landing a rocket.
SpaceX opted not to reuse the rocket from its first landing so it could be studied further. No plans for the newest recovered rocket have been announced yet. SpaceX does have a few satellite launches coming up in the next few months, so it could be recovering even more rockets soon enough.