SpaceX on Thursday became the first space company to use a recycled rocket to send a payload into orbit, paving the way for a sharp drop in launch costs that is a key part of its long-term plan to carry passengers to Mars.
The Los Angeles-based company sent a rocket into orbit using a main booster stage that first flew on April 6 last year. It also succeeded in landing the same rocket stage for a second time, laying the groundwork for using each of its rockets 10 times or more.
Finding a way to reuse its rockets has been a central part of SpaceX’s attempt to reduce the cost of reaching orbit and expanding the market for private space flight. “It’s been 15 years to get to this point. It’s taken us a long time, a lot of difficult steps along the way,” Mr Musk said.
Blue Origin, the private space company of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, was the first to reuse a rocket when the booster of one of its New Shepard rockets flew for a second time early last year. The same rocket was used three more times after that. But Blue Origin’s rocket is designed to send a payload only to the edge of space, short of the orbit that SpaceX reaches.
With nine Merlin engines and a fuel tank that stands 14 storeys high, SpaceX said the first stage accounted for about 80 per cent of the cost of one of its Falcon 9 rockets. It put the total cost of a launch of a non-reusable rocket at $62m, of which only some $200,000-$300,000 is the cost of fuel — an indication of the huge costs of using a rocket only once.
Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s chief operating officer, has estimated that reusing the rocket could cut the cost of a flight by 30 per cent. Getting the full use out of its rockets could eventually bring the price of a ticket to Mars down to $100,000, the company said on Thursday. “We’re not one-way trip to Mars people,” Ms Shotwell said.
Although it has taken nearly a year to put the rocket into space a second time, SpaceX said that only four months of that time was needed to test and refit the rocket to get it ready for a second flight. Ms Shotwell said the goal was to reduce this turnround time to less than a day, so that reuse would be as routine as it is today for aircraft.
SpaceX does not attempt to recover the upper, second stage of its rocket, though Mr Musk has said future rocket systems may be redesigned to reuse this section as well.
Thursday’s launch was made from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where SpaceX has taken a 20-year lease on the launch pad where the first human flight to the moon began. The rocket was carrying a payload for Luxembourg-based satellite communications company SES.
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