Elon Musk’s SpaceX has received much media attention since it was founded in 2002. Since its launch (no pun intended) the company has made headlines for a number of notable achievements:
- 2008 – the first privately funded liquid propellant rocket to reach orbit
- 2010 – the first privately funded company to successfully launch and recover a spacecraft that reached orbit
- 2012 – the first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station and the first propulsive landing for an orbital rocket
Many of these firsts are inevitably tethered to SpaceX’s status as an anomaly: a successful space venture born not out of NASA, but from private funding and investment. Now, Musk can add another first to his ever-growing list: the Falcon 9 has become the first reused orbital rocket. The rocket flew to space in June 2016, and it is now slated to re-enter orbit on a mission to the space station, marking a first for NASA, who approved the operation.
SpaceX and NASA Collaboration
Although SpaceX is a private company, NASA pays Musk billions to carry supplies to the space station. This relationship between the two organizations resulted in the approval of the Dragon re-entering a mission in 2012. However, the Falcon 9 marks a notable bragging right for SpaceX, as it becomes officially the only company to produce rockets with a reusable first stage – reusable rockets are a large part of Space X’s business plan. The company has now launched four previously flown booster rockets, with the spacecrafts carrying more than two tons of research and supplies to the orbiting lab of the International Space Station before returning to Cape Canaveral for further use.
The costs of launch have been particularly poignant for the company over the last two years. This most recent launch marks the first time that SpaceX has used its SLC-40 launch pad since it was destroyed in a 2016 explosion. The fire was the result of a static electricity anomaly that also consumed an additional rocket and satellite. As a result, the company faced additional delays due to more intensive pad inspections and fuel system cleaning.
To infinity and beyond
Still, even with the notable hiccups, SpaceX has become the dominant name in the orbital launch business, having now launched 16 successful missions. The four successful rocket reuses are a good indicator of how SpaceX continues to lead the industry with environmental policy and profits in equally good standing. The privatized space industry is still in its infancy, and yet NASA’s public decision to use what SpaceX refers to as “flight proven” boosters is a sign of confidence from the agency that Musk’s company is on the right track. Considering the proven risk—in every sector, especially financially—of putting previously flown rockets into the sky to deliver tons of needed material, NASA’s co-sign goes a long way in consolidating SpaceX’s expert standing within the industry.
Saving materials and money
Using boosters that have previously flown successfully can help save tens of millions of dollars on the cost of a launch. Whether that money goes back to NASA or stays within the company is unclear, but “flight proven” is definitely part of the company’s lexicon. Musk has stated that his goal is to be able to refurbish and reuse boosters in a 24-hour turnaround time. As of now the process has taken roughly six months, but considering that no company has ever attempted to reconfigure previously flown rockets, SpaceX is in a prime spot to push the industry down the same road sooner rather than later.
The emphasis on tech to lead the charge on reusable machinery, clean energy and other environmentally informed ideas is only going to increase. Musk has already made a name for himself as a key player in the clean energy movement. His Tesla automobiles are the prime non-hybrid electric car in terms of public consciousness. It’s no surprise that the man who revolutionized how we think of the roads already has his head—and his eyes—in the sky.