SpaceX has successfully launched its Dragon space cargo ship on Friday and subsequently seen it berthed at the International Space Station in time for Easter, The entrepreneurial launch company has done those things before. But this flight featured a controlled splashdown of the first stage of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, a major achievement that promises great things to come according to a Saturday report in SpaceFlightNow.
SpaceX has tested the concept of a reusable rocket with a vertical takeoff and landing vehicle at its McGregor, Texas test facility. The launch that took place on Friday featured a further test by the idea by executing two burns on the Falcon 9’s engines after it had separated. The first burn directed the stage to land in a prescribed part of the Atlantic Ocean a few hundred miles northeast of the Kennedy Space Center. The second burn slowed to stage enough so that it hopefully made a gentle landing in the ocean.
SpaceX received telemetry from the first stage roughly eight seconds after it splashed down. That has buttressed hopes that it can be recovered intact. Should the company succeed in doing so, it will examine its condition to ascertain how the maneuvers affected the rocket stage.
Eventually SpaceX hopes to fly a reusable version of its Falcon 9. The idea is that each stage, after separation, will fly on its own back to a landing pad and use leftover fuel to touch down on landing legs. Then the stages would be refurbished, restacked, and then reused. Thus the cost of space travel will be greatly reduced.
The trick is to be able to do these things quickly and cheaply. The space shuttle was officially reusable. But the orbiters typically took months to turn around after a mission to prepare it for the next one. If SpaceX means to cut the cost of space travel, it will have to do much better than that. And all indications are that it intends to.