Tonight SpaceX made history. It landed the first stage of a rocket that had delivered a payload to orbit. It’s the first time ever, and it’s a big big deal!
Space is hard and expensive. Most of that expense comes because every time we go to space we throw the rocket away. Think of what it would cost if we threw away an airplane every time it flew. On the launch broadcast they said it would mean that it cost about one-and-a-half-million dollars to fly across country. If we can learn to reuse rockets by landing them regularly, we can make space flight much much less costly, and that will let us consider such things as a permanent moon base or a colony on Mars.
The problem is that its really, really hard to land a rocket that goes straight up. Jeff Bezos and Blue Orbital did that recently, but that is child’s play compared to landing a rocket that has taken a payload toward orbit. Why? Because orbit requires moving sideways through the atmosphere at around17,000 miles an hour. What Bezos did is much more comparable to landing your Estes model rocket in your back yard than it is to what Elon Musk and Space X did tonight.
Now the first stage doesn’t get all the way to orbital velocity but it does do a significant chunk of the work. Then it has to turn around burn back the other direction to get back to the landing area and then burn to slow itself and land. That’s impossible, or it was until tonight. Tonight Space X made the impossible possible. History will look back on this day.
It’s easy to forget the thousands and thousands of hours poured into making a marvelous machine do something outrageously cool. That’s why you need to watch the video below as the team at Space X celebrates the fulfillment of their hard work. (I started it in the middle, right near the landing, but the whole thing is worth watching when you have a few minutes.) Enjoy!