In case you missed it, earlier this month SpaceX — founded and led by Elon Musk — came this close (your thumb and forefinger separated by a millimeter) to achieving something never done before in the field of big-time, commercial rocketry:
- Launching a full-blown, multistage spacecraft, in this case a Falcon 9;
- to deliver a payload into earth orbit;
- and then retrieving the spent first-stage of the rocket;
- by having it auto-navigate to a soft-landing on a fixed target!
This is like throwing a pencil as hard as you can up into the air and expecting it to land vertically on the eraser end without toppling over. Yes, the U.S. Space Shuttle and the Soviet Buran space shuttle could do this but those were immensely expensive and required legions of technical staff to help them fly and land.
Elon Musk almost nailed it this time — he has been testing the retrieval and landing technology for a few years. Basically, the Falcon 9 was on track to make its vertical landing but ran short of hydraulic fluid, causing it come in “hot” and pitched too steeply. The first-stage did hit its target, just a bit “abruptly.”
If you’ ve not seen the video of the landing, turn on your speakers and watch here:
SpaceX is going to make this work soon and when it does, it will be a game-changer in terms of the economics of spaceflight including human spaceflight. It was not too surprising, then, to see Google and Fidelty make a $1 billon investment in the company as they did last week. It’s a good investment. Competitors Boeing and Lockheed should be getting nervous.