Elon Musk’s dream and ultimate goal of establishing a permanent human presence on the Red Planet in the form of “A City on Mars” took a gigantic step forward with the game changing rocket landing and recovery technology vividly demonstrated by his firm’s Falcon 9 booster this past Monday, Dec. 21 – following a successful blastoff from the Florida space coast just minutes earlier on the first SpaceX launch since a catastrophic mid-air calamity six months ago.
“I think this was a critical step along the way towards being able to establish a city on Mars,” said SpaceX billionaire founder and CEO Elon Musk at a media telecon shortly after Monday night’s (Dec. 21) launch and upright landing of the Falcon 9 rockets first stage on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.
“[The landing] and reusability dramatically improves my confidence that a city on Mars is possible. That’s what all this is about.”
Although the primary goal of the Dec. 21 ‘Return to Flight’ launch was carrying a constellation of 11 ORBCOMM OG2 commercial communications satellites to low Earth orbit, the secondary goal of safely soft landing the Falcon 9 rocket vertically and recovering the first stage for eventual reuse is what made headlines worldwide and sparks belief in enabling Musk’s vision concerning sending people to Mars in the not too distant future.
“I think this bodes very well for the future,” Musk stated with respect to one day colonizing Mars with human “cities.”
“This is really amazing for SpaceX and the future of launch. As far as we can see right now the mission was absolutely perfect.”
Video caption: Compilation of 4 Mobius camera videos from the Falcon 9 Orbcomm-2 launch on December 21, 2015. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace
Musk’s vision of radically slashing the costs of launching people and payloads to space by recovering and reflying rockets – built individually at great expense – rather than completely discarding them after a single use, marked a history making achievement when the first stage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 landed upright and intact barely 10 minutes after it departed Earth on Dec 21.
“I think quite vital to that goal is reusability of an orbit class rocket. It’s really fundamental to that goal, without which it would be unaffordable.”
See the dramatic landing in this SpaceX video taken from a nearby helicopter:
How much money can be saved by recovering and reusing orbit class rockets?
“It would be the difference between something costing less than one percent of what it would be otherwise,” Musk elaborated at the media telecon.
“It makes all the difference in the world. It’s absolutely fundamental,” Musk noted.
“And I think it really quite dramatically improves my confidence that a city on Mars is possible.
“You know, that’s what all this is about.”
The vertical landing of the fully intact Falcon 9 first stage is a historic first step that turns a page on the road to rocket reusability and sending people to the Red Planet more affordably.
It also counts as one of the best Christmas presents ever for space enthusiasts worldwide, longing for decades, since the final Apollo moon landing in 1972, to send people on bold voyages to deep space destinations.
“I do think it’s a revolutionary moment,” Musk added. “No one has ever brought a booster, an orbital-class booster, back intact.”
The Falcon 9 first stage stands 156 feet tall. About 3 minutes into the flight it separated from the upper stage that continued to orbit with the 11 Orbcomm satellites, reignited a Merlin 1D engine and successfully made a propulsive ground landing about 10 minutes later at the SpaceX Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) complex at the Cape, some six miles south from the launch pad at Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40).
“This is something that was actually a useful mission. It delivered 11 satellites to orbit, and then came back and landed. I think that’s perhaps the thing that’s really significant. We achieved the recovery of the rocket in a mission that actually deployed 11 satellites. This is a fundamental step change in technology compared to any other rocket that has ever flown.”
The Falcon 9 is equipped with four landing legs and four grid fins to enable the propulsive landing back on the ground at the Cape, once the first stage separates and relights a Merlin 1D engine.
Two prior attempts to land on a barge came very close with pinpoint approaches to the vessel in the Atlantic Ocean. But the rocket tipped over in the final moments and was destroyed.
The launch and first stage landing, vertically at night, was apparently perfect and came off without a hitch.
“From everything we’ve seen thus far, the mission appears to be perfect,” said Musk.
“The satellites were deployed right on target. And the Falcon 9 booster came back and landed, it looks like, almost dead center in the landing pad. And then the upper stage did a coast and then restarted to prove out the coast and restart capability.”
“So as far as we can see right now the mission was absolutely perfect. We could not have asked for a better mission or a better day.”
The Dec 21 rocket recovery is a stepping stone on the path to economical rocket reusability.
How often will SpaceX recover the rocket?
“I think that we’re going to get quite a few rockets back, so I imagine we’re going to have a whole fleet of booster rockets accumulating quite rapidly because we’re building them right now at about one every three weeks,” Musk stated.
“Over time we expect to get back over 99% of the rockets. So we will figure out how to make the reuse as easy as possible. So that really no work is required between reuses, apart from refilling the propellant tanks.”
“So it will take us a few years to iron all that out and make sure it all works well.”
How much does it cost to build the Falcon 9?
“The Falcon rocket costs about $60 million to build,” Musk said. “It’s kind of like a big jet, but the cost of the propellant, which is mostly oxygen and the gases, is only about $200,000. So that means that the potential cost reduction over the long term is probably in excess of a factor of a hundred.”
Video caption: Mobius remote video camera positioned at launch pad showing blastoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 Orbcomm-2 mission on December 21, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
All SpaceX launches had ground to an immediate halt this past summer when the commercial two stage Falcon 9 booster carrying a SpaceX cargo Dragon spacecraft heading to the ISS on a critical resupply mission for NASA was unexpectedly destroyed by an overpressure event 139 seconds, after a picture perfect blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28, 2015 at 10:21 a.m. EDT.
The cause of the in-flight breakup was traced to the failure of a critical support strut inside the second stage liquid oxygen tank holding a high pressure helium tank in the Falcon 9 rocket, as the likely cause, Musk revealed during a briefing with reporters on July 20.
Musk and SpaceX are already well along their long desired path to launch people to space – via a NASA contract to build a crewed version of their cargo Dragon. The crew Dragon is slated to blast off on its first orbital test flight in 2017 and transport astronauts to the International Space Station.
SpaceX is also developing the triple barreled Falcon Heavy rocket, a heavy lift booster that can launch much more massive payloads to Earth orbit and beyond.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.