SpaceX today managed to successfuly land it’s Falcon 9 rocket on a drone barge. Let that sink in for a minute! It’s taken four failed landings but SpaceX now has the capabilitiy to not just land a rocket on land but also on the open seas.
The Elon Musk led venture competes with the likes of the ULA ie the United Launch Allience which is headed by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The ULA has been the de-facto launch vehicle provider with their Atlus V rockets that are reliable yet have massive cost overheads. Every launch essentially requires a new vehicle to be built with the cost per launch being several hundred million dollars. SpaceX on the other hand can accomplish a similar launch in under $60 million. That 60 million dollar figure includes the cost of building a brand new Falcon 9 rocket. With this new found capability to land the launch vehicle on a barge, SpaceX can now shave off about 30% off their cost to launch something into space.
The feat is remarkable for multiple reasons. While SpaceX has been able to land rockets on land for a while now, landing on a barge presents a more pressing challenge and one that is critical for future missions. The constant motion of the ocean and high winds, unpredictable conditions make alligning both the barge and the rocket a very hard task, more so since they do not communicate with each other.
But why even land on the ocean when you’ve got a large expanse of land? The simple answer to that is fuel.
A SpaceX rocket can simply reuse remaining fuel and settle down on a barge in the middle of the ocean. Returning back to the original launch location means carrying enough fuel to propel the rocket back over what could be a very large distance. With the upcoming Falcon Heavy launch which will carry larger payload, the rocket just won’t be able to carry enough fuel to propel it back thus making landings over the ocean critical.
Commercialization of space is critical for many reasons, the simplest of them being making the advancement of mankind in its exploration of the cosmos. Lowering the barrier to entry means that we will be able to see even more innovation in a category that has historically been heavily government controlled. Reducing the barrier to entry means that we can look forward to an increased level of interest amongst engineering communities and universities to learn more about and even launch pico satellites.
One of the thoughts about MakersBox was that in this modern day India where people are innovating the best mobile apps and the best web apps, we wondered how and where will the next innovator come who will develop a rocket, a satellite, the next communication chip. This achievement by SpaceX is a major win for innovators around the world to target space as the next avenue for disruption.