On Monday, SpaceX flew into history. Then it turned around and flew back again.
At first, the company's Orbcomm-2 mission looked much like many a similar satellite launch. A Falcon 9 rocket launched from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at 8:29 p.m. EST. Four minutes later, its first stage disconnected, and its second stage ignited, proceeding into orbit to deploy a series of 11 satellites for its customer. It's what happened after first-stage separation, but before payload deployment, that made history.
History -- made
At 8:39 p.m., just 10 minutes after blasting off into space (and reaching the velocity necessary to keep it there), the first stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket returned to successfully land back on Earth.
It's important to point out that this is something that's never been done before -- landing a spacecraft vertically after a trip into orbit. Neither Boeing (NYSE:BA) nor Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) -- the two space giants that named themselves the "United Launch Alliance" 10 years ago -- has done it. Nor has NASA itself, or China or Russia, for that matter.
In contrast to previous landing attempts, SpaceX did not this time attempt the unimaginably complex task of decelerating a Mach 23 rocket and landing it on a veritable pinpoint of a target -- a barge floating at sea. Past attempts showed the company capable of hitting its mark, but not of keeping its spacecraft upright after touching down. This time, though, SpaceX aimed for its newly acquired Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral as its touchdown point...
...and it stuck its landing...
...and the crowd went wild.
Not having to deal with a terminal point that's bobbing up and down on the waves almost certainly simplified SpaceX's task. So too did the company's use of a new and improved Falcon 9 rocket, which was bigger than the original and carried more fuel and more hydraulic fluid, and so had more resources to work with to fine-tune its landing. Most important of all, SpaceX had under its belt two (failed) water landing attempts, and a whole series of (successful) short-hop land-landings to learn from.
And now it's mission accomplished at long last.
What comes next?
Detractors will point out that rival rocket company Blue Origin (run by Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos in his spare time) also launched and landed a suborbital spacecraft, the "New Shepard," and that in doing so last month, it beat SpaceX to the punch. SpaceX contends that wasn't quite as neat a feat, though, because New Shepard never went past Mach 3.7 on its trip, didn't send a payload into orbit, and thus completed a simpler task when it returned its rocket to Earth.
One thing both companies can agree on, though, is Bezos' assertion that proving rockets can go up, come down -- then refuel and go back up again -- is the kind of technological advance that will completely change the economics of spaceflight.
"Full reuse is a game changer ... and we can't wait to fuel up and fly again," says Bezos. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk notes that the cost of buying a new Falcon 9 rocket is about $60 million, already far cheaper than the $400 million or so that Boeing and Lockheed charge for their rockets. With fuel costs only "about as expensive as fueling up a 747," the cost of flying reusable rockets will be even cheaper.
According to Musk, once SpaceX nails down the procedure for landing rockets safely, there will be "no meaningful limit" on how many times Falcon 9R can be refueled and relaunched. "We would have to replace a few parts that experience thermal stress after 40 cycles, but the rest of the engine would be fine," says Musk. Add a few hundred thousand dollars' worth of fuel, and it's off to the races.
The upshot for investors
Granted, it's going to take more than a few successful trials to prove that these rockets can be brought down safely, and consistently. But it's been done now twice, and by two separate companies -- neither of which is named Boeing or Lockheed Martin.
The cost of spaceflight is coming down for the companies that have figured this out. Meanwhile, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have not yet figured it out. Unless they do so quickly, there's simply no question that the cost of their launch services will be eclipsed by SpaceX's relative cheapness. And United Launch Alliance will be out of the space launch game -- forever.