During a routine cargo launch to the International Space Station tomorrow, Space X will attempt to change the economics of space flight forever. The Elon Musk-headed private spaceflight company will try to recover its Falcon 9 booster rocket, instead of just letting it fall uselessly into the ocean. This involves landing the giant rocket on a floating platform roughly the size of a football field – in the past, Space X only had a landing accuracy of within 6 miles. For this launch, they are attempting a landing accuracy of within 33 feet.
For space travel, a reusable rocket would be a complete game-changer. To get an incredibly heavy payload into orbit, immense rockets are needed – the Falcon 9 generates 1.3 million pounds of thrust and stands as tall as a 14-story building. These rockets have long been discarded after a single use, sent to the bottom of the ocean at an absolutely massive expense. But Space X believes it can conceivably land the rocket after it has propelled the payload to orbit, byusing a set of grid fins that would extend after it detaches from the payload. These fins would help guide the rocket back to a site 200 miles east of Jacksonville, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Space X has already successfully landed the rocket softly, slowing down the rocket before letting it fall into the ocean. But for their first attempt, they still put their chances of success at only 50%.
Here's a video of a test of a reusable rocket performing a launch and platform landing:
“We’ve been able to soft-land the rocket booster in the ocean twice so far,” Musk told the New York Times. “Unfortunately, it sort of sat there for several seconds, then tipped over and exploded. It’s quite difficult to reuse at that point.”
By reusing a single rocket multiple times, Space X hopes that it will be able to cut the cost of space travel by as much as a factor of 100. So there’s a lot of money riding on the 6:20 AM launch.
In an October interview with Maxim, Musk outlined his aspirations for humans traveling to other planets. "Why have we not sent anyone to Mars? I kept expecting it would occur, and then year after year nothing happened," Musk said. "Finally, I looked into it and was surprised to discover there wasn’t even a plan to go to Mars! So when I had a little money, I decided to do something about it."
But even if tomorrow’s rocket landing fails, Space X has already pledged to learn from possible mistakes and attempt it again. Musk gives the company an 80-90% chance of a successful rocket landing in 2015, a year that looks to be another giant step in humanity’s long journey back to deep space.
Photos by SpaceX