I don’t recall many science fiction stories that had manned spacecraft landing on Earth by parachuting into water. There might have been a few SF stories based on the Apollo program, but parachutes? No.
So last week’s powered landing of Space X’s Falcon 9 first stage was a step backward in time to when SF writers knew how spaceships should land, even if it’s taking decades for rocket engineers to catch up.
The Dec. 21 landing was only a step. It was, after all, an unmanned booster that landed back at Cape Canaveral. Yet it was not a test flight but an operational launch that sent 11 communication satellites into orbit. By accomplishing its primary mission and returning to its launch site, Space X achieved far more than rival Blue Origin did a couple of weeks before with a powered vertical landing after a test flight. The Falcon 9 booster traveled higher, farther and faster than the Blue Origin test hop, and proved vertical landing was not a public relations lark but a solid proof of concept under operational conditions. In one round-trip flight, the Falcon 9 flight and landing has demonstrated the viability of a truly reusable first stage that will cut the costs of launches for Space X.
Yet we can’t get too excited. It’s going to take more than one powered landing before reusable launch boosters have proven their dependability. The booster used in the Falcon 9 launch and landing will actually never fly again, according to Space X, but will be refueled and test fired as part of a series of tests to see how well it withstood the stress of returning to Earth intact. If the Falcon 9, however, succeeds in proving that dependability, the cost of sending humans and cargo to Earth orbit should drop dramatically.