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.
“The Falcon 9 rocket costs about $16 million to build – it is kind of like a big jet – but the cost of the propellant . . . is only about $200,000,” SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said during a teleconference the night of the launch, according to Space.com. “So that means that the potential cost reduction in the long term is probably in excess of a factor of a hundred.”
A rocket’s return to Earth has been on the drawing board since the early design work for NASA’s space shuttle. Some ideas called for a crewed first stage that would begin the shuttle’s trip to orbit, then fly back to the Kennedy Space Center for a runway landing. Those early concepts proved too expensive for NASA’s funding level, and added even more complexity to an already complex space craft.
But the idea of a powered vertical landing that had been a mainstay of science fiction still stuck in the mind of real rocket engineers inspired by those stories. The first operational manned vertical rocket landings were carried out by the Apollo astronauts, but they were landing their lunar module on the airless Moon. There were several designs and test flights during the ’90s and through the ’00s to land rockets in Earth’s atmosphere and gravity, but it really took the competition in commercial spaceflight that spurred recent advances in launch and return.
Commercial spaceflight is itself a concept first embraced in science fiction, particularly the image of a rich entrepreneur who devotes much of his hard-earned wealth on leading the way into space. Musk co-founded PayPal before he began Space X. Blue Origin was developed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. Richard Branson wasn’t satisfied with his success at Virgin Airlines, and started Virgin Galactic for suborbital passengers.
Other entrepreneurs founded Planetary Resources with a goal of mining asteroids for the substantial profit the endeavor could achieve. And Musk has as his ultimate goal the big prize itself, landing on Mars and starting a colony there without having to wait for NASA. His crewed capsule, Dragon, that is already under contract to carry astronauts to the International Space Station, is designed with landing rockets that would allow the spacecraft to land on Earth or Mars.
Just to be clear, the advancement of commercial space flight is still a combined public/private endeavor. The space entrepreneurs, however, are taking a greater share of the lead these days. I first read about entrepreneurs in space in novels and SF magazines. They didn’t have to worry about government budget cuts or changing goals for NASA whenever a new administration took over the White House. The space entrepreneurs of today have learned that lesson, and they’re the ones putting the excitement and viability back into human space exploration.