Somewhere, Robert A. Heinlein is smiling. Check that, he is more likely roaring with delight that at long last, a privately developed rocket has been successfully re-flown in an orbital flight. That the most recent mission took place from a government owned launchpad that is practically a shrine to taxpayer funded frustration in the same cause provides a layer of irony worthy of D.D. Harriman himself.
The moment SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket completed first stage separation on Thursday evening during the course of the SES-10 commercial satellite launch can rightly be called the moment the second space age was born.
Like any new birth, it was a long time coming, and the signs of impending change were impossible to ignore, but the instant is worthy of recognition because of what it means for a future which is forever changed with the creation of new possibilities. For all the cheers which we have heard in recent years erupting from the crowds of employees gathered outside the glass enclosed confines of SpaceX’s mission control center at its Hawthorne, California headquarters, this was by far the most raucous. The raw emotion of achieving a 15 year-long goal you have been told was impossible, and for which you have sacrificed much; time, family, friends, will do that to you, and even company founder, and this timelime’s Harriman, Elon Musk, was nearly at a loss for words when he stepped in front of the camera at the launch control center at Cape Canaveral for a few brief remarks.
As with most new beginnings, the world rarely changes overnight, only the realities for the individual, or the small group of people intimately involved in the event. It is only later as the ripples begin to spread, that the true magnitude of a change takes effect. Around the world, China’s launch industry is making enormous strides, while India is just now rising even as Russia is perpetually reeling. Europe’s Arianespace is still the commercial launch leader, and back in the U.S., United Launch Alliance maintains a death grip on much of the national security launch business, as well as the support of some very powerful members of Congress. Yet in each of those places, the changes may already be beginning to be felt.
In proving the re-usability of its Falcon 9 first stage, SpaceX has gone somewhere they cannot follow, at least for the foreseeable future. And that means for each, the future may not be so foreseeable after all, as SpaceX presents a particularly elusive target. One of the biggest stories coming out of yesterday’s launch was the fact that not only did the Falcon 9 first stage successfully return to its drone ship for the second time, SpaceX recovered the rocket’s second stage payload fairing for the first time, ever, anywhere. Parachutes and a small reaction control system on each half mean another $5 million or so per flight that the company can recover some day as well.
What remains frustratingly expendable is the actual second stage, where the effort to equip it for recovery means taking away a pound of payload capacity for every pound of heat shield, propellant and other gear that is added for the effort. For many commercial launches to Geostationary Transfer Orbit, the physics will remain too demanding, but it is a somewhat different case for Low Earth Orbit launches like those that initially paved the way for reusability in the first place. Wherever extra propellant mass remains at the end of successful launch, lies the opportunity for further testing and progress, and it will be interesting to see if the final, Block Five version of the Falcon 9 promised later this year offers that margin.
For the moment though, SpaceX’s oft-repeated goal of full and rapid reusability is clearly focused on the second variable, as indicated by the following tweet from Musk only moments after the first stage landed on the ASDS Of Course I Still Love You:
Incredibly proud of the SpaceX team for achieving this milestone in space! Next goal is reflight within 24 hours.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 30, 2017
On the last day of March, 2017 the first space age is now officially over. Long live the New Space Age.