Recently, Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully recovered the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket following a satellite launch and delivery from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. The first stage, after separation from the payload, fell back to Earth and made a controlled-burn landing on a pad in Florida. The mission, known as ORBCOMM-2, marks the first time a rocket launched a payload into orbit and then returned safely to Earth.
During the mission, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket delivered 11 satellites to low-Earth orbit for ORBCOMM, a leading global provider of Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communication and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions. The Falcon 9 is a family of two-stage-to-orbit launch vehicles designed and manufactured by SpaceX. The interstage, which connects the upper and lower stages for Falcon 9, is a composite structure with an aluminum honeycomb core and carbon fiber face sheets.
Many in the aerospace industry see this landing as a major breakthrough due the potential pathway it paves to potential widespread use of reusable rockets. According to an article by NBC News, the Falcon 9 that SpaceX uses costs around $60 million to build, with an extra $200,000 in fuel costs. Rebuilding a multi-million rocket for every single space mission isn’t economically sustainable. The success of the Falcon 9 landing could lead to more cost-effective rockets that eliminate the rebuilding costs.
“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred,” Musk said on SpaceX’s website. “A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.”
There is still, however, plenty of work to be done before reusable rockets become mainstream, according to Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
“The next step is to see how much it costs and how long it takes to refurbish the recovered stage and fly it again,” Pace said.
Another question yet to be answered is how far behind might competitors such as Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance be. Composites have already played critical roles in the successful launch of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket and many of United Launch Alliance rockets with composites provided by Orbital ATK.