This past Saturday, January 14th, SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket into orbit. It carried with it 10 satellites, all of which were successfully sent into orbit. But no one is talking about that part. They're talking about what Falcon 9 did next. Because after the rocket split from its payload (the satellites it was carrying into space), it turned around, fell back down to Earth, and landed on a drone barge in the Pacific Ocean.
This was the first time SpaceX had successfully landed one of its rockets in the Pacific Ocean, and only the fifth time overall that they've been able to land one of these rockets on a drone ship. But this isn't just brand new territory for SpaceX, the space tech company founded by billionaire Elon Musk. This is brand new territory for humankind. And it might just change space travel forever.
Recycling the space program
Since we first started to send vehicles into orbit in the 1950s, space has been a lot of things — but "cheap" would never be one of those words. Going into space is incredibly expensive. The fuel alone that is used to get a vehicle off the planet is mindboggling. Look at this picture of the space shuttle waiting to launch.
See that huge orange thing under the shuttle's belly? That's the fuel tank! And it's just for the launch!
Which brings us to another huge part of space travel's money problem: it's really wasteful. That huge tank in the photo? It was used once and that's it. It was the same for most other rockets in the space program — while the capsule or the shuttle (i.e. the things that carried the people!) would be brought back to Earth, the rockets often were not. So wasteful, right? And even if they were brought back, as with the solid rocket boosters (those skinny white rockets next to the space shuttle's fuel tank), they simply fell back to Earth by parachute and dropped in the ocean. The rockets never actually landed.
But what if the rockets that carried satellites and astronaut into space could be reused? What if they could land, be refuelled, and then sent back up into space in a matter of minutes?
What if they could be reused?
A brave new world
That's what SpaceX is trying to accomplish — making reusable rockets the norm. By landing its Falcon 9 on its drone barge (called Just Read the Instructions), the company is getting closer and closer to making these rockets more reliable. And what does this mean for the future of astronauts and space travel? Well for one, SpaceX doesn't need to spend $62 million US every time it launches a rocket (that's how much a Falcon 9 costs to build). Not bad!
Of course, over the course of its Falcon 9 program, they've had a few failed landings as they tried to bring their rockets back to Earth. And back on September 1, 2016, they had a major accident. One of their rockets exploded on the launch pad, destroying itself and the satellite it was supposed to carry. SpaceX took months off to study the accident and improve its technology. But they've had many successes, too. Such as this landing that you're going to be able to watch in the video below! In case you're not sure how big a deal this is, the SpaceX crew cheering in the background will give you a clue. We think it's a pretty mindblowing achievement.
This video is very long, but for the highlights, go to these times:
21:40 Shutdown of the main engine once in orbit (listen to those cheers!)
26:00 The descent and landing of the rocket