Building the World

Round Trip Success


SpaceX CRS-1 Falcon 9 illuminates NASA launch area 40 in 2012. Photo credit: Jim Grossmann, NASA. Image: wikimedia commons.

A turning point in human exploration has been achieved; SpaceX returned a rocket. Significance? Up until 21 December 2015, all trips to supply orbital cargo, including delivery trips to the International Space Station, were one-way for the stage one launch rocket. Launch rockets cost $54 million but only $200,000 is for fuel; there is significant economic and environmental benefit to reuse, especially if the launch vehicle can return to the original launch site, as a car might return to its home driveway. Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla, called the success, realized after a series of attempts, a “revolutionary moment.” An earlier game changer? Extra-vehicular activity, or EVA, enabling construction, repair and  building in space. Alexey Leonov was the first human to achieve EVA: for 12 minutes in March 1965. EVA advanced to over two hours during the 21 July 1969 Apollo moonwalk by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. EVA missions have repaired and refined the Hubble telescope. Like EVA, round-trip rocketry has a history with milestones. Just days before orbital success, Blue Origin actually made history in the first successful launch rocket return, in a test flight on 23 November 2015. But SpaceX’s  21 December feat is different in two ways: orbital and very much not a test flight. SpaceX carried and successfully delivered Orbcomm’s constellation of 11 communications satellites into orbit, bringing forward the future opened by another game-changer: COMSAT. It might be noted that roundtrip rocketry appears to have been first achieved by private industry; Blue Origin LLC, by Jeff Bezos, founder of and SpaceX, Elon Musk, founder of PayPal and Tesla. Roundtrip rocketry marks a milestone; what new frontiers may now be open for business?

To watch the launch and landing:

Wall, Mike. “Wow! SpaceX Lands Orbital Rocket Successfully in Historic First.” 21 December 2015.

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

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