The Age Of Reusable Space Boosters Has Arrived

Every time someone says “It can't be done”, someone like Elon Mush comes along and proves them wrong.

Musk's latest triumph? SpaceX's successful return of a Falcon 9 first stage in a controlled descent and 'soft' landing.

The Falcon 9 rocket used for the mission, dubbed Commercial Resupply-3, or CRS-3, was the first to fly with landing legs, and was the first to successfully perform a controlled ocean splashdown.

The mission was the first successful test of a new capability for the first stage of the Falcon 9: the ability to descend to a soft touchdown after delivering its payload to orbit. Conventional rocket boosters fall back to Earth after expending their fuel, reëntering the atmosphere fast enough to disintegrate in the heat caused by friction with the air. This adds greatly to launch costs, which can top $200 million per launch, since a new rocket has to be built for each flight.

The Space Shuttle was supposed to be reusable, and the shuttle itself was. But the main tank was not. The solid rocket boosters were to a point, with them being recovered from the ocean after every launch. But they required a lot of equipment (and money) for recovery and refurbishment. Certainly the sea water didn't help things, seeing as it was corrosive.

The shuttle system never attained the money savings originally projected at the beginning of the program. But it was a heavy lift system that had no equal for a number of years.

Now comes SpaceX and its reusable main stage booster, capable of landing after re-entering the atmosphere. This means little money or equipment will be necessary for recovery of the booster and turnaround time will be much shorter.

SpaceX is already the lowest-cost provider of launch services to the U.S. government and the commercial satellite industry, with flights costing less than $100 million. The company hopes to drop costs even further with reusable rockets. SpaceX has been testing a Falcon 9 first stage in low-altitude hops at its McGregor, Texas, rocket development and testing center.

Here's a video of a recent test of the Falcon 9R:

If SpaceX can make their system work reliably it will be a game changer in the commercial space lift industry.