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A Giant Leap (Backward) for Space Travel

By successfully returning one of its rockets to Earth, SpaceX has shown a way to revolutionize the space industry.
December 22, 2015

SpaceX has taken a major step toward slashing the cost of satellite launches, safely returning one of its launchers to the ground in reverse.

The Falcon 9 rocket was launched at 8:29 p.m. from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida yesterday, deploying 11 communications satellites into orbit before returning to Earth. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk provided live updates of the event via Twitter, and SpaceX posted a video showing the mission in its entirety to YouTube.

The Falcon 9 rocket lands on its launchpad.

The successful launch also marked SpaceX’s return after its last rocket exploded during takeoff on June 28. The company has tried twice before to land a rocket, without success (see “SpaceX Claims Partial Success with Rocket Crash Landing”). “It’s a revolutionary moment,” Musk told media after the landing. “No one has ever brought a booster—an orbital-class booster—back intact.”

Musk’s private space company has been working on the audacious maneuver for some time, and earlier this year we profiled Lars Blackmore, a key member of the team at SpaceX working on the effort (see “35 Innovators Under 35: Lars Blackmore”).

Flying a rocket back to Earth in reverse after blastoff is an incredible feat, and Blackmore’s expertise lies in developing the algorithms needed to model and react to the chaotic conditions experienced during descent. When I spoke with Blackmore, who previously designed the descent system for a NASA Mars probe, I was struck by how confident he was that SpaceX would succeed. He also did a nice job of explaining why reusability is so important. “The propellant is less than half a percent of the cost of a rocket launch,” he told me. “So you’re basically flying a 747 across country and then just throwing it away rather than refueling it and flying it back.”

This is far from the finish line for SpaceX, though. The company must demonstrate that it can perform the return flights fairly reliably, and more important, it must show that a rocket that’s already been through one blastoff can be refurbished well enough to go again.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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