Between Orion's success, and the companies' announcement that their United Launch Alliance joint venture will develope a "next-generation liquid oxygen/hydrocarbon first stage" rocket to power launches to near-Earth orbit, Boeing and Lockheed are on a hot streak. But amid all the hullaballoo at ULA, you might have forgotten there's another space launch company that is building even more innovative products. Its name is SpaceX.
It goes up, but can it come back down (in one piece)?
ULA's Orion mission was a real shot in the arm to a U.S. space industry that has been collecting black eyes in recent months. Orion itself is a true technological marvel, using some of the biggest rocket engines on the planet to get into space, and a cutting-edge heat shield to come back down to Earth.
So what does SpaceX have going for it, to compete with all this?
Oh, just a little thing called an X-Wing.
Well, OK -- not exactly that kind of X-Wing. SpaceX's version actually looks more like this:
See those tiny cross-hatched "fins" sticking out of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket tube? Those are what SpaceX calls its "X-Wings." Yes, compared to George Lucas's sci-fi imagination, they seem pretty small potatoes. But they could be key to SpaceX's effort to render ULA's space tech obsolete.
Breaker, breaker [Falcon] 9
What's so groundbreaking about SpaceX's new X-Wings? Simply this: Unlike Lockheed's Orion, which can only reenter the atmosphere by plummeting through Earth's gravity well, setting loose multiple parachutes to slow its descent, and finally "splashing down" in the ocean, SpaceX is designing the Falcon 9 rocket to be reusable.
After launching and delivering its payload to orbit, the Falcon 9R (for "reusable") would drop back down through the atmosphere, slowing its descent with jets, and ultimately land back on Earth "feet-first."
Recent tests have shown the rocket landing on the same launchpad from which it lifted off. In the future, SpaceX intends to recover descending Falcon 9R's aboard a portable, oceangoing landing pad, which looks like this:
To add air resistance as it descends, and to assist Falcon 9R in maneuvering to land on the "X" that marks its spot, these four new fins can be remotely controlled to angle and rotate, to guide Falcon 9R to its destination.
What all this means to investors
The X-wing fins aboard Falcon 9R might not look like much, but they're just one more tweak SpaceX is making in its effort to design a truly reusable spacecraft -- one that doesn't need to depend wholly upon heat shields, parachutes, and soft-water touchdowns to land on Earth (or eventually, the Moon, or Mars, or Mars' moons...) A spaceship that can launch, land, and (fuel capacity permitting) perhaps even relaunch from other planets, all under its own power.
In the near term, SpaceX's reusable rocketship could cut the cost of satellite launches by 74% off what ULA charges the U.S. government. SpaceX boss Elon Musk recently promised the Senate that with Falcon 9 rockets alone, he could put satellites in space for less than $100 million -- and missions done with reusable rockets would come even cheaper.
If he's right, the elation at Lockheed Martin and Boeing could prove short-lived.