I was born just four months after Apollo’s last astronauts wiped the gray dust off their spacesuits and rose from the moon. As my interest in space grew over the years and writing about this industry became my profession, I felt deeply sorry that I missed this glorious moment of triumph in our common space history. I lived with this regret for decades – until April 8, 2016.
Five years ago today, SpaceX successfully landed a Falcon 9 rocket first stage on a boat.
I wasn’t prepared for the experience of watching a skinny, black-and-white rocket fall from the sky against the azure background of the Atlantic Ocean and land on a small drone. As the white caps collided aboard the boat, it looked like a portal opening into the future. This breakthrough in rocket technology washed away any regret for the lack of Apollo. Because, in my opinion, the landing of the Falcon 9 in the first stage at sea is a significant step towards reducing the cost of taking people and payloads into space and unlocks a bright future for space flight.
After nearly a dozen failed attempts, subsequent landings soon filled a SpaceX hangar full of used rockets. This surprised some SpaceX engineers. “We were even surprised that we suddenly had ten first stages or something,” said Hans Koenigsman, one of SpaceX’s earliest employees, a few years later. “And we were like, well, we didn’t really take that into account.”
Need for the sea
A few months before that landing, of course, SpaceX had successfully returned the first stage of the Falcon 9 to its “landing area” off the coast of Florida, near the launch pad. It was a huge achievement. But landing a drone is much more difficult. When landing on the shore, only the rocket moves. When they touch down the sea, both the rocket and the drone move and there are marine conditions and others to keep in mind.
Yet the economy almost requires a landing on the launch pad. This is because during launch, the rocket gradually bends from vertical to horizontal orientation as it prepares to release its second stage in an orbital trajectory. At this point, it requires tons of fuel to stop this horizontal speed and return the course back to the launch pad. It is much more economical for the rocket to follow a parabolic arc and land hundreds of kilometers from the place of launch.
This is confirmed by the performance data. A Falcon 9 rocket that lands on an unmanned spacecraft can lift about 5.5 tons into geostationary orbit for transfer, compared to 3.5 tons for a rocket that lands back at the launch site. If SpaceX had not figured out how to land the Falcon 9 on the first stage of a drone, it would have eliminated about 40 percent of the rocket’s ability to take off, a huge punishment that would negate the benefits of reusing missiles.
Nearly a decade ago, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin patented the concept of a rocket landing on a barge for this reason. (This forced SpaceX to go to court, and his patent challenge eventually succeeded.) But there is a big difference between knowing something and actually doing something. Since acquiring its patent, Blue Origin has not yet launched an orbital rocket, let alone landed it. Bezos remodeled and named the ship a platform, Jacquelinebut are unlikely to catch a rocket before 2023 at the earliest.
In contrast, from his first successful landing on the ship drone Of course, I still love you, SpaceX safely returned another 56 Falcon 9 rockets to sea. Ocean-based landings have proven to be an extremely favorable technology. Of the 10 SpaceX orbiters launched in 2021, each went into orbit in a previously flown first stage. Some returned to space within four weeks of a previous launch. By landing its first Falcon 9 rocket at sea, SpaceX began a revolution in launch. Missile reuse is no longer a novelty – it is considered an essential part of the business.
“I’m really surprised to see new launch vehicles in development that can’t be used repeatedly,” Peter Beck, the founder of Rocket Lab, told me in December.
A personal journey
The dramatic landing on this first stage also launched me into something like a personal journey. I realized that SpaceX is not just a really interesting company that does interesting things in space. Rather, it was the transforming space company of my entire life.
I began to report in more depth on the company’s activities, trying to understand where it came from and to better understand the motivation of the founder and chief engineer of SpaceX, Elon Musk. This eventually led to a Liftoff book on the company’s origins. One thing I took from this report is that, as strange as the automatic landings of drones may seem, they are just one in a long line of miracles that must be performed to put humans on the surface of Mars.
In the 2000s, SpaceX nearly died several times as a young company with its Falcon 1 rocket. In 2010, SpaceX replicated Falcon 9, winning contracts for the first time to launch NASA and commercial satellites. These missions, in turn, gave SpaceX engineers the breathing room to experiment with restoring and rebuilding used rockets. Today, thanks to this, they can fly in the early stages quickly and at significantly reduced costs.
Now, with Starship, SpaceX is looking to use a much larger orbital vehicle and bring back not only the first stage – in that, the Super Heavy amplifier is very similar to the first stage of the Falcon 9, but also the Starship vehicle. This is a completely different challenge, as Starship will return to Earth at orbital speeds, around Mach 23. And then SpaceX engineers will have to figure out how to load Starships into low Earth orbit and then how to keep the crew alive on the road. to Mars, to the surface and back home. Each of them represents a huge engineering difficulty.
However, pondering how far SpaceX has come in five years since the first boat landing, I am left with a single, predominant thought. If this company could land missiles on boats in the middle of the ocean, what could it not do? So now I am glad that I have missed the era of Apollo, if that means I can be alive right now, with an uncertain but limitless future ahead of us.
Image of a list from SpaceX