SpaceX and the quest for the reusable rocket

By Allan Harris & Corey Conley

In December 2010, SpaceX became the first private company to successfully launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft, but now they want to push the envelope even further by creating a reusable rocket. The December launch represented just the latest in a string of milestones never achieved by a non-governmental space company – the SpaceX’s successes could be ushering in a new era of humans in space, if they can overcome more down-to-earth obstacles first.

SpaceX reusable rocket

The main challenge is reducing the cost and weight of the traditional launch. We’ve all seen NASA launches, with their multimillion dollar components simply falling into the ocean – sometimes recovered, sometimes not. SpaceX is focusing on maximizing reusability, and succeeding. Their suborbital craft “Grasshopper” was the first successful step towards a reusable rocket.

SpaceX and their first steps toward a reusable rocket

Based on the company’s “Falcon” design, The 106 feet tall reusable rocket doesn’t look all that special – only a rocket scientist would notice the Grasshopper Rocket has an extra motor and boosters. These boosters are upright on the launch pad, and will be shielded from the tremendous forces the rocket normally succumbs to in reentry. The extra motors are designed to ensure that the rocket landing upon returning to earth is cushioned and less bumpy. The Falcon 9’s second stage also separates from the rocket and returns back to its launch site. SpaceX’s ultimate goal is a “boomerang” rocket that will return each of its pieces back for reuse. It’s a tall task.

Their latest reusable rocket design, the Dragon, is designed to serve as a transportation system to deliver cargo to and from the ISS (International Space Station). On November 30, 2011, SpaceX will launch for the ISS, supplanting the role of the now-defunct shuttle program and Soyuz spacecraft. If the nine-day journey is successful, the Dragon will soon be ferrying astronauts to and fro the station.

SpaceX reusable rocket - computer simulation of the dragon landing on it's launchpad

Computer simulation of the Dragon landing on it’s launchpad

For now the team at SpaceX is working diligently with NASA to troubleshoot the reusable rocket’s many systems and allay concerns about the Dragon. If the extra payloads work successfully, astronauts stationed at the ISS will again be able to receive and send things while they stay in space – a far larger feat in the days of the expensive shuttle launch.

The Dragon is currently under construction at the SpaceX center at Hawthorne. All of its components are being tested – and retested – for performance under highly standardized conditions. There is a lot of expectation from SpaceX. If the Dragon is successful reusable rocket, we have a lot to look forward to.

However, excepting the technical wizardry needed to land and reuse an orbital rocket, none of this is particularly earth shaking. After all, astronauts and cosmonauts have been journeying to and from the ISS for eleven years, and space stations have been in our night sky for decades.

The significance of the SpaceX reusable rocket

No, what really makes this significant is SpaceX, a private company, is willing to make a huge bet in an industry dominated by the biggest, most powerful governments the world has ever seen. While the private sector is unlikely to produce grand, historical moments such as the first moon landings, their constant quest for efficiency and new technology will lead to refinements and breakthroughs needed for government agencies to plow forward.

SpaceX and their reusable rocket, with any luck, will allow NASA to focus on the cutting edge of human exploration rather than the drudgery of ferrying supplies and personnel to the decade-old albatross that is the ISS. While NASA pursues the noble goals of exploration, let SpaceX and its competitors do the grunt work, at a fraction of the cost. SpaceX’s reusable rocket is the perfect example.

SpaceX Reusable Rocket Video

You can check out the video of SpaceX’s reusable rocket here

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