Space & Innovation

Why the SpaceX Rocket Ocean Landing is a Big Deal

SpaceX's successful return of the first stage booster of its Falcon 9 rocket to an ocean platform has the potential to revolutionize our access to space. But how?

When a SpaceX Falcon rocket flew itself back to its Florida launch site last December, the feat was hailed as a key step in company founder Elon Musk's quest to develop an inexpensive, reliable reusable rocket. But that was just half the story.

The more challenging and potentially revolutionary step was accomplished on Friday when another Falcon rocket dispatched a cargo ship to the International Space Station, then turned around and landed on a platform gently bobbing in the Atlantic Ocean.

PHOTOS: Lesson of SpaceX Rocket Landing: Try, Try, Try Again

"And they said it couldn't be done (at least no one has ever done it) until, of course, you did it," former NASA space shuttle manager Wayne Hale wrote in a congratulatory note to SpaceX on Twitter.

SpaceX would prefer to fly its rockets back to the launch site, saving the time and expense of dispatching one of its floating landing pads and a fleet of recovery ships, but most of its satellite-delivery missions won't have enough fuel left over for the rocket to make it back to land.

"I think this was a really good milestone for the future of spaceflight, I think it's another step toward the stars," Musk told reporters after the landing.

The Falcon rocket that launched a Dragon cargo ship toward orbit on Friday likely could have made it back to the launch site, but SpaceX opted to use the mission to test its sea-landings again. Four previous attempts to land a rocket on a barge, or what SpaceX calls a "drone ship" were not successful.

"We decided we wanted to go for the drone ship and see if we could get a successful landing," Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president for flight reliability, said before Friday's touchdown.

NEWS: Inside Jeff Bezos' Secret Rocket Factory

"The next two or three flights are going to be drone ship landings - there's no choice there ... It's a good opportunity for us to refine our drone ship landing capabilities and get this done because in the long run, that's certainly something that we need to demonstrate over and over again to get the first stages back."

SpaceX isn't the only firm looking at landing its rockets at sea. Jeff Bezos' space company, Blue Origin, was granted a patent for a sea-based rocket landing system, but SpaceX successfully contested the claim.

In an interview with Discovery News last month, Bezos and Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson declined to comment on whether further patents are pending, but Bezos did say that it is absolutely essential to be able to recover rockets at sea rather than flying with the weight of the extra fuel needed to get back to land.

Blue Origin declined to comment on Saturday about SpaceX's landing at sea.

The drone ship carrying the 156-foot tall Falcon rocket first stage was expected to return to Port Canaveral, Florida, just south of the Cape Canaveral spaceport, Sunday or Monday.

NEWS: Falcon Returns: SpaceX Makes Historic Rocket Landing

The rocket will be taken to SpaceX's new launch site at the Kennedy Space Center and test-fired about 10 times, Musk told reporters at a post-launch press conference.

If all that goes well, Musk wants to resell that rocket at a discount price to a commercial customer and launch it again with about two months.

"In order for us to really open up access to space, we've got to achieve full and rapid reusability," Musk said. "The cost to refuel our rocket -- it's mostly oxygen on board -- is only $200,000 to $300,000, but the cost of the rocket is $60 million ... You still have your fixed costs, but in marginal costs, it's a hundred-fold reduction."

The Dragon cargo ship launched Friday reached the space station early Sunday. Its primary cargo, an inflatable space habitat built by Bigelow Aerospace, is scheduled to be attached to a berthing port on the station on Saturday. Astronauts, however, are not expected to inflate the habitat, which is flying as technology demonstration mission, until late May.

The Falcon 9 1st stage stand proud atop the automated drone ship "Of Course I Still Love You" in the Atlantic Ocean after the first successful ocean landing of the vehicle on Friday.

A repaired and upgraded Falcon 9 rocket not only put SpaceX back in the launch business on Monday, it stunningly demonstrated that with enough time, technical expertise and maybe a little luck, it’s possible to return a rocket booster to the launch site. Here’s a look back at the highs and lows along the way to this historic moment.

MORE: Falcon Returns: SpaceX Makes Historic Rocket Landing

SpaceX pulled off an historic first Monday night, launching a network of communications satellites into orbit, and then landing the rocket’s jettisoned main stage back near the launch site. SpaceX gave its customer, Orbcomm, a cut-rate $47 million, two-flight deal, a savings for more than $70 million. Orbcomm, which operates machine-to-machine communications systems, such as between shipping containers and retailers, was an early SpaceX adopter, booking rides on the company’s now-decommissioned Falcon 1 launcher. SpaceX moved Orbcomm to its bigger Falcon 9 rockets for the same price. Landing the booster was the icing on the cake, an experiment conducted at SpaceX’s expense. The touchdown, however, may lead to even better prices for Orbcomm and SpaceX’s other customers in the future, with a new category of launch vehicle in the offing slightly used.

PHOTOS: Before Falcon 9, SpaceX Learned From Falcon 1 Flops

Photo: This is a striking timelapse image shows the bright streaks caused by the Falcon 9 launch and its returning first stage booster.

SpaceX founder and chief executive had a nasty surprise on his 44th birthday: a Falcon 9 rocket blasting off to deliver a load of cargo to the International Space Station broke apart about two minutes after liftoff from Florida on June 28. It was the first failure of the Falcon 9, which had flown 18 times previously. The accident, which was caused by a faulty strut in the rocket’s upper-stage liquid oxygen tank, kept the Falcon 9 fleet grounded for six months.

MORE: Faulty Strut Likely Caused SpaceX Rocket Explosion

Photo: This image is a snapshot of the dramatic NASA TV footage of the moment when the Falcon 9 rocket exploded moments after lift off on June 28.

Following a series of tests to control booster descent, SpaceX customized a pair of ocean platforms in hopes of bringing a Falcon 9 first-stage back intact, a key step in the company’s quest to develop a reusable launcher, one that could fly for a fraction of today’s going rate. Nailing the landing was “like trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a windstorm,” SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk said at the time. During the first attempt to land at sea, in January 2015, the booster hit the target, but landed too hard, primarily because the hydraulic system needed to operate stabilizing grid fins, ran out of fluid. The next attempt, in April, a stuck valve prevented the booster from reacting fast enough to maintain position after a successful touchdown. It toppled over and exploded.

VIDEO: SpaceX Releases Amazing (and Explosive) Video of Rocket Landing

Photo: During ocean landing tests, SpaceX proved they could return their Falcon 9 boosters to a precise target, but maintaining stability on touchdown has been a problem.

SpaceX’s early attempts to develop rocket landing technologies included a suborbital testbed called Grasshopper, which was used for low-altitude, low-speed hover and landing tests beginning in September 2012. On its eighth and final flight in October 2013, Grasshopper flew to an altitude of 2,441 feet and landed. A follow-on program, the Falcon 9 Reusable Development Vehicle, or F9R, had a successful debut in April 2014, but crashed due to a faulty sensor four months later.

PHOTOS: SpaceX Grasshopper Rocket Takes Giant Leap

Photo: The experimental Grasshopper rocket hovers over its launch site during early tests.

One of the first to offer congratulations to Elon Musk and SpaceX for nailing a rocket landing was Jeff Bezos, fellow billionaire rocketeer who founded his own space company, Blue Origin, in 2000, a couple of years before Musk started SpaceX. “Welcome to the club!” Bezos posted on Twitter, a not-so-oblique reference to his company nailing a landing of its suborbital New Shepard rocket a month ago. After that feat, Musk took to Twitter to offer his own congratulations, also couched with comments about the relative difficulty of landing from orbital versus suborbital velocities. Rocket races, anyone?

MORE: Blue Origin Nails Rocket Landing

Photo: Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket achieves touchdown after a successful suborbital launch test.

Cheap, reusable rockets aren’t just good for business. SpaceX founder Elon Musk sees them as an essential part of the technology needed to get to Mars. “Now is the first time in the history of Earth ... where it's possible for us to extend life to other planets," Musk said at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco this month. "That window may be open for a long time -- and hopefully it is -- but it also may be open for a short time," he said. “The wise move is to make life multi-planetary while we can.” A large part of making space travel affordable is reducing launch costs, hence SpaceX’s steadfast efforts to develop reusable rockets. Musk said each Falcon 9 costs about $16 million to build, but fuel for the flight is a relatively cheap $200,000. Slashing costs by that much is a game-changer. SpaceX’s next job will be to assess the condition of the recovered Falcon and then possibly fly it again.

MORE: Musk: SpaceX Making 'Progress' Toward Mars Colony