Shortly after sunrise on the morning of Tuesday April 4th, SpaceX’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship Of Course I Still Love You sailed slowly into Port Canaveral and brought home the world’s first reused rocket stage.
The Falcon 9 rocket had been launched on March 30th on the mission SES-10 to deliver a telecommunications satellite for SpaceX’s corporate customer SES. Just 2.5 minutes after lift off, the first stage jettisoned from the second stage with the satellite payload. It then returned to Earth and the deck of the drone ship using a series of controlled burns roughly 8 minutes after leaving Kennedy Space Center.
The mission marks the first time ever that a rocket’s first stage was used on a second mission (its maiden flight was in April 2016). It’s a milestone not just for the fledgling space transportation company but really for space transportation as a whole. It’ll have huge implications in making space transportation more affordable to corporate and government customers as well as pave the way for the even grander plans to go to Mars.
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said during a speech at the 33rd Space Symposium that the cost of refurbishing the first stage for this mission was substantially less than half the cost of building a brand new one, according to SpaceNews. And the company expects to see a big cost savings on future launches as they begin refurbishing recovered stages.
But this doesn’t mean consumers will see price slashes on the cost of a flight to space just yet. Having spent over $1 billion on reusable launch vehicle technologies, SpaceX still needs to recoup their initial investments on this new invention. But the company does expect to bring costs down over time as a result of the savings gained from reusing rocket parts.
Reusability makes a whole lot of economic sense for a company aiming to commercialize space transportation as a mainstream service. It also makes sense for the company’s more lofty goal of sending people to colonize Mars since, ideally, you’ll want a way to get them back to Earth.
But that dream is still a ways out. For now, Shotwell said SpaceX’s next goal is to reduce their turnaround time and refurbish rocket parts within one day so they could potentially reuse rocket parts for multiple missions per day. The current Falcon 9 first stage took four months to refurbish. There are some gains to be made here.