First they said SpaceX couldn't land a rocketship. So SpaceX did it.
Then they said SpaceX couldn't land a rocketship on a boat. So SpaceX did that, too.
Finally, cynics accused SpaceX of making that last landing too easy on itself. "Its rocket didn't go far enough," they accused. It didn't reenter hot enough, or fast enough. Let's see SpaceX try landing a rocket after launching to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), and not just low Earth orbit (LEO) -- it won't survive the attempt!
Well, surprise, surprise -- last week, SpaceX did that too. After launching a Japanese communications satellite into GTO roughly 22,300 miles above Earth, SpaceX landed its Falcon 9 launch vehicle aboard a drone barge in the mid-Atlantic last Friday. This is something that no one else has ever done -- not Boeing (NYSE:BA) nor Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), the twin titans of United Launch Alliance. Not Arianespace. Not even Blue Origin has accomplished such a feat.
In fact, SpaceX has now successfully relanded three of its last five rockets launched, including those carrying:
- The Orbcomm mission, launched to LEO and landed at spaceport on Dec. 21, 2015
- Jason-3, launched to LEO and failed landing at sea on Jan. 17, 2016
- SES-9, launched to geostationary orbit (GEO, which is similar to GTO in altitude) and failed landing at sea on March 4, 2016
- CRS-8, launched to resupply the ISS in LEO and landed at sea on April 8, 2016
- JCSAT-14, launched to GTO and landed at sea on May 6, 2016.
And yet, SpaceX's critics have been right about one thing all along: Space is hard.
It took SpaceX two failed attempts before it finally stuck a landing on solid ground. It took the pioneering space exploration company two more failures before Falcon 9 would land safely on a boat at sea.
Turns out, the one thing everyone was wrong about was that landing a rocket after a GTO mission (delivering a satellite to 22,000-26,000 miles distant) would be appreciably harder for SpaceX than landing after an LEO mission (LEO is anything under 1,200 miles above Earth's surface).
Yes, the speeds involved were higher, with SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket rising higher and therefore falling farther down Earth's gravity well before landing. Yes, the temperature of reentry was higher. (Check out the discoloration on that rocket up above. It was white when it started its trip....) But SpaceX still did it.
The question now is: What will SpaceX do next?
What comes next
The easy answer to this question is: Thaicom 8.
On May 26, SpaceX is scheduled to fly a Falcon 9 rocket out of its Space Launch Complex 40 installation at Cape Canaveral, carrying the Thai communications satellite into geosynchronous orbit (GSO) roughly 23,000 miles above Earth. After that, SpaceX has three launches scheduled to take place in June, two flying out of Cape Canaveral and one leaving from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
SpaceX may or may not choose to relaunch the same Falcon 9 that landed at sea on April 8 for one of these missions -- or for another mission yet to be announced. Elon Musk has said he's "aiming for relaunch around May or June," depending on whether SpaceX can find a customer willing to take a ride on a used rocket.
What comes after next
It's after SpaceX finds that guinea pig, though, that things really get interesting. According to the company's chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX plans to cut its usual advertised price for a space launch by about 30% when reusing a rocket. That should shave $20 million off the company's usual launch price of roughly $60 million.
At $40 million a rocket ride, it's going to be very difficult for any other space launch company to compete with SpaceX. Currently, Boeing and Lockheed Martin's space launches cost $125 million and up. Arianespace has a plan in place to launch satellites two at a time aboard its new Ariane 64 rocket (once it's built), for an average launch cost of $63 million -- but even this won't compete with a $40 million price, if SpaceX is able to offer that consistently.
The key, though, is consistency. SpaceX has launched and landed three rockets -- and deserves all possible kudos for that. But can it re-launch and re-land a rocket? Can it rere-launch it and rere-land it? Because if it can, SpaceX will be able to underprice all comers, and change the economics of space exploration forever.
And in as little as a month and a half -- or less! -- we'll know the answer.