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SpaceX on Thursday launched and landed a first-stage rocket booster that had previously flown — a milestone that could herald new era of low-cost space transportation.
The successful launch of the commercial communications satellite on the recycled Falcon 9 rocket could lower launch costs as much as 30%, if SpaceX is able to make the procedure routine.
SpaceX employees at the company’s Hawthorne headquarters cheered and clapped as they watched the first-stage booster touch down on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean named Of Course I Still Love You.
Company Chief Executive Elon Musk said in a news conference after the launch that reuse of the first-stage booster would greatly reduce the cost of going to space.
“If we can achieve that, if SpaceX and others will also do the same, it means humanity can be a space-faring civilization,” he said. “This is what we want for the future.”
Reusability is a crucial part of Musk’s larger goals. His plan to colonize Mars revolves around a reusable rocket system that could see spaceships being used 12 to 15 times.
Long before that, SpaceX plans to increase its satellite and cargo launch cadence, which analysts said would be aided by having reliable, reusable rocket boosters.
But that depends on turning around each first-stage booster relatively quickly and cheaply. The company will also have to determine how many times its boosters can be used without sacrificing reliability.
Musk said the boosters should be capable of at least 10 flights with no refurbishments. With “minor” changes, the boosters could be flown at least 100 times, he said.
The company’s goal is to have landed boosters ready for reflight within 24 hours — meaning the only change would be to refuel — Musk said. He said he was confident SpaceX could achieve the one-day turnaround next year.
“What this means is that if you can reuse this over and over again, the economies of scale are just going to be incredible,” said Marco Caceres, senior space analyst at Teal Group.
“You’ll be able to conceivably get the prices of these launch vehicles down to rates that nobody conceived of,” he said.
Musk said the company also successfully recovered the rocket’s fairing, a clam shell-like covering that protects satellites and other payloads. The fairing, which Musk said cost $6 million to make, has its own thruster control system, as well as a steerable parachute to guide it into the ocean, where it floats.