Getting metal hunks into orbit used to cost a bomb. Then SpaceX's Falcon 9 landed

Why Jeff Bezos should shut up

Analysis Monday's historic landing of the first stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is possibly the most significant event in rocketry since Apollo 8 showed we could get humans to the Moon and back safely.

The Falcon rocket's first stage is hugely important. Its nine engines power the vehicle out of our thick atmosphere - the process which accounts for around 75 per cent of the total hardware costs of the entire launch vehicle. As such, getting it back to Earth in one piece could be a huge cost saver.

To give an example, if we had to throw away an aircraft every time it flew, then flying would be a very rare and expensive occurrence. We've done this for years with rockets, however, which explains the high cost of getting into space.

It's currently costing NASA $70m and change to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station and cargo can cost $10,000 a pound to get into orbit. The vast bulk of that cost is the rocket itself, which usually is destroyed in the launch.

Elon Musk's idea is that by landing and refurbishing the rockets he uses, the cost of orbital delivery can be slashed. Take into account the lift capability of the forthcoming Falcon Heavy rocket and the cost will fall even further.

As the costs of getting into orbit fall, we can actually start doing more stuff up there, like building spacecraft that can explore more of the Solar System. Any trip to Mars is going to require a craft built in orbit, or at least assembled there.

Making unmanned probes in orbit could be more reliable that building them on Earth. At NASA Goddard facility there is a room-sized vibrator that is used to test space hardware for the rigors of launch. Getting into orbit can subject spacecraft to tremendous vibrations so the hardware needs to be very finely engineered to make the trip without cracking up on the way out of the gravity well.

Monday's landing bodes well for this, and will radically change orbital economics. But SpaceX isn't the first firm to land a rocket after use, so what's the big deal with the firm.

Nice try, Bezos

Elon Musk might have been talking a mean game about landing a rocket, but his firm was beaten to the punch by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin space company managed to land its New Shepard rocket in November.

Shortly after the Falcon rocket touched down Jeff Bezos took to Twitter to pass on a rather backhanded compliment to the SpaceX team.

So why isn't Bezos getting the credit for changing the economics of rocketry? Because the New Shepard system isn't anywhere nearly as useful as the Falcon 9 for getting stuff into orbit.

The New Shepard rocket isn't remotely as powerful as a Falcon 9, which limits its usefulness drastically. It was originally designed as a space tourism vehicle, allowing rich idiots the chance to experience freefall for a few minutes before returning to Earth, much like Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.

New Shepard might be able to deliver some cargo into very low orbits, notably cubesats, but it doesn't have the grunt to get hardware into the higher Clarke orbit for geosynchronous positioning. New rockets are promised that will do this, but they are a long way off.

Bezos beating SpaceX to the landing must have hurt Musk like a kick in the nuts, but it was a very different kettle of fish. The Falcon 9 is a monster in comparison to New Shepard, travels at almost double the speed and is much harder to control during landings.

It may be that Blue Origins will grow to rival SpaceX in terms of what it can deliver to orbit, but at the moment there's no contest. The New Shepard rocket is a toy by comparison to the Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

One small problem

There is however a problem. Landing the rocket is a big step, but that won’t necessarily mean that the rocket can be reused.

The rocket will now be taken back to SpaceX headquarters and examined piece by piece. The hardware will be tested by x-rays and ultrasound to look for imperfections and may be fuelled up for a few static burns, if it is safe.

After all, the space shuttle was supposed to be reusable, and it was – up to a point. The spacecraft had cost a lot to get into orbit, but after it had landed the costs continued to mount – repairing the craft after each mission cost millions of dollars and took a lot out of NASA's budget.

It may be that SpaceX is going to run into similar problems. If the stress of a launch on the rocket's engines was too much as huge chunks of the hardware have to be replaced, then the economic equations look a lot less promising.

Given that Musk has been working towards reusable rockets from the start, he's confident that this won’t be the case. The rockets have been engineered to handle the stresses of a launch and still be reusable, in stark contrast to past designs from NASA and others.

If the SpaceX team has done their engineering correctly and the engines can be reused, then the cost of going into orbit will be slashed. If they haven't, then we're back where we started and will have to carry on paying through the nose to leave the gravity well. ®

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