SpaceX sticks to launching rockets most of the time, sending up supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) on a Falcon 9 rocket. The payload is housed in the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket and separates from the first stage to continue its mission to the ISS. The first stage of the rocket, with all the boosters, is usually discarded to break up in orbit. However, SpaceX is determined to safely land and reuse the first stage of their Falcon 9 rockets.
After eight attempts to land the rocket intact, SpaceX finally accomplished their mission on December 22,, 2015. The first stage dropped out of the sky after separating from the second stage, maintaining some of its fuel for reentry. As it neared the Earth cold jets were used to reorient the rocket, then the engine was reignited to slow its decent before landing within a few meters of the large painted X on the landing pad.
While this isn’t the first time a rocket had been landed after liftoff, it is a first for the Falcon 9 and SpaceX. SpaceX is understandably elated to finally accomplish one of its long coveted goals. Landing the rocket isn’t just a neat party trick. It takes about $60 million to build the Falcon 9 rocket and fuel runs $200,000 more. Hypothetically, reusing the booster saves SpaceX around $50 million per launch. There are repair cost to be factored in but a large chunk of change and time can be saved by recycling the rocket. Now comes the next phase, checking and testing the rocket to see if it can be reused for another mission. Research still needs to go into checking out the condition of the rocket and what it would take to relaunch it successfully. SpaceX may choose to keep this landmark rocket as a tribute to their success so we may not see a relaunch attempt until they manage to duplicate this effort for a second time.
Alongside this mission is another rocket, the Falcon Heavy that is set to be tested in 2016. The Falcon Heavy is intended to launch larger payloads, including humans, into space. This dovetails into their long term goal to send humans to the International Space Station in 2017. It has been a busy year for SpaceX after a few setbacks, including the catastrophic failure of a resupply mission in June where the payload and rocket burned up during launch. If all goes according to plan, both SpaceX and Boeing will be launching humans into space in the very near future, forever changing the way humans explore space.