This week, SpaceX founder Elon Musk achieved part of his goal of bringing spaceflight a little closer to home with the successful landing of the Falcon 9 rocket. Are we nearing the dawn of a new space age?
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With the celebratory exclamation "Welcome back, baby!" SpaceX founder Elon Musk took space travel one step farther into the future this week with the successful landing of its Falcon 9 rocket -- the first such feat ever achieved.
The majority of the launch cost comes from building the rocket, which flies only once. Compare that to a commercial airliner -- each new plane costs about the same as Falcon 9, but can fly multiple times per day, and conduct tens of thousands of flights over its lifetime.
While most rockets are designed to burn up on reentry, SpaceX rockets are designed not only to withstand reentry, but also to return to the launch pad or ocean landing site for a vertical landing.
"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, who is also the CEO of Tesla Motors, wrote on the SpaceX website. "A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space."
The Dec. 21 video of the successful landing shows a raucous crowd celebrating outside the control room at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, as the Falcon 9 rocket settles upright on the landing pad.
The ORBCOMM-2 mission delivered 11 satellites to low-Earth orbit for ORBCOMM, a global provider of machine-to-machine (M2M) communication and Internet of Things (IoT) technology.
The mission marked SpaceX's first attempt to land a first stage on land, though the landing of the first stage was considered a secondary test objective.
The objective of reusable rockets is to lower the across-the-board costs for space flight, which could result a series of developments including new types of space ventures, including commercial flights and space tourism.
"With lower costs and competition, prices could fall, stimulating demand for more access to space," Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said in an interview with NBC News. "The next step is to see how much it costs and how long it takes to refurbish the recovered stage and fly it again."
Farther in the future, these types of reusable rocket technologies could help drive down costs low enough to make a mission to Mars -- something Musk has stressed the importance of -- a more financially feasible goal.
"This is a critical step along the way toward being able to establish a city on Mars," Musk told reporters following the landing. "That's what all this is about."
In an interview with Ars Technica, Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an advocate of commercial human spaceflight, said the successful landing upon reentry will have broad implications for the space flight industry.
"It makes you rethink the way we do business," Stallmer said "That's the bottom line. Is there a better way to do spaceflight? It used to be if, or when, we could reuse rockets. But now we've crossed off the 'if,' and the 'when.' It changes the way the industry is going to do business."
Musk is not the only tech mogul who is looking to harness the power of spaceflight. In September, Amazon's Jess Bezos announced Blue Origin, his plan to manufacture and launch rockets in Florida.
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Nathan Eddy is a freelance writer for InformationWeek. He has written for Popular Mechanics, Sales & Marketing Management Magazine, FierceMarkets, and CRN, among others. In 2012 he made his first documentary film, The Absent Column. He currently lives in Berlin. View Full Bio
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