Falcon 9: SpaceX just made space travel 40% cheaper

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket successfully landed upright on solid ground at Cape Canaveral, Florida this evening, after traveling into space and back.

It’s the first time SpaceX has been able to gently touch down the Falcon 9 post-launch — something the company has been trying to do for the past year. It’s a big first step toward reusable rockets.

This launch was also the first time SpaceX has flown since June, after one of its Falcon 9 rockets exploded en route to the International Space Station. Now this return-to-flight mission has made history — no one else has ever landed a rocket that has gone as deep into space as the Falcon 9.

Video of SpaceX’s 14-story Falcon 9 rocket landing:

As big as this is for SpaceX, it’s not the first time a vertical take-off rocket has landed upright after launching into space. In November, Jeff Bezos’ private spaceflight company Blue Origin announced that it had landed its rocket New Shepard post-launch. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is more complex than New Shepard: it’s designed to go higher in space, and much faster.

Both accomplishments suggest the shape of things to come, says Charles Miller, president of NexGenSpace, a spaceflight consulting firm. “I think it’s very clear the future is reusable space, and the rest of the world is playing catch up to the innovation that’s taking place in America’s space entrepreneurs,” said Miller.

Right now, all rockets that travel into orbit are either destroyed or lost after taking off. It’s something that drives up the cost of spaceflight; an entirely new rocket must be built for each launch. But if SpaceX can routinely reuse its rockets, the company saves the cost of manufacturing new vehicles for follow-up missions. That could make spaceflight a lot more affordable.

SpaceX has tried this landing twice before. In January and April, the company attempted to land the first stage of the Falcon 9 — a 14-story tall portion of the rocket body — on a floating platform out at sea. The rockets fell over and exploded both times.

Since those two attempts, SpaceX has modified some things. The most obvious change is that today’s landing was on solid ground, rather than at sea — a floating ship is a smaller and more unpredictable target. That’s not all, though. SpaceX introduced an updated version of the Falcon 9, informally named the Falcon 9 v1.1 Full Thrust. This version of the rocket has a modified structure and an updated engine, that’s supposed to provide more thrust.

If SpaceX can routinely reuse rockets, that may force change in the whole private space industry. SpaceX CEO Musk noted that it costs $16 million to manufacture the Falcon 9, but only $200,000 to fuel. Eliminating a $16 million expense could drastically bring down launch costs.Competing launch providers may have to explore reusable rockets as well to compete with SpaceX on future contracts.