Earlier today SpaceX landed its Falcon 9 rocket on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You. Here’s the video:
This was the company’s fifth attempt at an ocean landing, and the second time that SpaceX has successfully landed a Falcon 9 rocket. While Blue Origin was quicker to land a rocket and reuse it, only SpaceX has successfully landed a rocket at sea. Sea landings, while more technically difficult because the target is always moving, can save fuel because a ground landing from orbit (or an orbital trajectory) will involve some backtracking along the flight path.
(Blue Origin is not resting on its laurels, putting its New Shepard rocket through a third consecutive launch and landing earlier this week.)
Once the ocean landings can be shown conducive to reusing these rockets, the launch costs for SpaceX missions drop precipitously. A Falcon 9 can cost $60 million, with around $200,000 necessary for fueling. Even assuming that any additional expense for preparing the rocket is equal to the fuel costs, that’s less that 1 percent the full cost of the rocket.
And, for me at least, there’s something very science fiction about seeing a space vehicle land with the relative ease of a helicopter or other vertical takeoff and landing aircraft.
The next critical step will be to repeat the ocean landing. SpaceX, of course, has been conducting these tests in conjunction with the launches it contracts with various parties (this one launched a cargo shipment to the International Space Station). It makes good sense to have someone else pay for the launches that provide the testing opportunities.