I was born just four months after the last Apollo astronauts brushed gray dust from their spacesuits and took off from the moon. As my interest in space grew over the years and writing about this industry became my profession, I felt a growing regret that I had missed that glorious moment of triumph in our shared space history. I lived with that regret for decades – until April 8, 2016.
Five years ago today, SpaceX successfully landed a Falcon 9 rocket first stage on a boat.
I was not prepared for the experience of seeing a skinny, black and white rocket fall from the sky against the azure backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean and land on a small drone ship. When the whitecaps hit the side of the boat, it looked like a portal opening to the future. This breakthrough in missile technology washed away any regrets I had about missing Apollo. Because in my opinion, landing a Falcon 9 first stage at sea was an essential step toward lowering the costs of getting people and cargo into space and opening a bright future for space travel.
After nearly a dozen failed attempts, subsequent landings soon filled a SpaceX hangar full of spent missiles. This took some SpaceX engineers by surprise. “We were even surprised that we suddenly had ten first stages or something,” said Hans Koenigsmann, one of SpaceX’s first employees, a few years later. “And we were like, well, we didn’t really take that into account.”
Need for the sea
A few months prior to this boat landing, SpaceX had, of course, successfully returned a Falcon 9 first stage to its “landing zone” off the Florida coast, near the launch pad. This was a huge achievement. But landing on a drone ship is so much more difficult. When landing on the coast, only the missile moves. When landing at sea, both the missile and the drone ship are in motion, and there are sea conditions and more to consider.
Still, the economy pretty much requires a landing in launch pad reach. That’s because a rocket gradually tilts from a vertical to horizontal orientation during launch as it prepares to release its second stage on an orbital trajectory. At this point, it needs tons of propellant to stop this horizontal speed and return to the launch site. It is much more economical to have the rocket follow a parabolic arc and land hundreds of kilometers from the launch site.
This is confirmed in the performance data. A Falcon 9 rocket landing on a drone ship can lift about 5.5 tons into geostationary orbit, compared to 3.5 tons for a rocket landing back at the launch site. Had SpaceX not figured out how to land the Falcon 9’s first stage on a drone ship, it would have eliminated about 40 percent of the rocket’s lifting capacity, a massive punishment that would have negated the benefit of rocket reuse .
Almost a decade ago, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin patented the concept of landing a missile on a barge for this very reason. (This forced SpaceX to go to court, and its challenge to the patent ultimately succeeded.) But there is a big difference between knowing something and actually doing something. Since Blue Origin obtained the patent, it has yet to launch an orbital rocket, let alone land a rocket. Bezos has converted and named a platform ship, Jacklyn, but a missile is unlikely to be caught by 2023 at the earliest.
By contrast, since the first successful landing on the drone ship Of course I still love youSpaceX returned 56 more Falcon 9 missiles safely to sea. Landings at sea have proven to be a remarkable assistive technology. Of SpaceX’s 10 rocket launches in 2021, all were in orbit on a previously flown first stage. Some returned to space within four weeks of a previous launch. By landing its first Falcon 9 rocket at sea, SpaceX started a launch revolution. Missile reuse is no longer new, it is considered an essential part of the business.
“I am really surprised to see new launch vehicles in development that are not reusable,” Peter Beck, the founder of Rocket Lab, told me in December.
A personal journey
The dramatic landing of that first leg also took me on a somewhat personal journey. I realized that SpaceX wasn’t just a really interesting company doing interesting things in space. Rather, it was the transformative aerospace company of my life.
I began to report more deeply on the company’s operations, trying to understand where it came from and to better understand the motivations of SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk. This eventually resulted in a book, Liftoff, about the origins of the company. One thing I got out of this report is that, miraculous as automatic drone landings may seem, they are just one in a long series of miracles that must be realized to put humans on the surface of Mars.
In the 2000s, SpaceX nearly died as a start-up company several times with its Falcon 1 rocket. In the 2010s, SpaceX repeated itself on the Falcon 9, winning the first contracts for NASA launches and commercial satellites. These missions, in turn, gave SpaceX engineers the breathing room to experiment with recovering and refurbishing used missiles. As a result, they are now able to fly the first stages quickly and at a significantly lower cost.
Now, with Starship, SpaceX is trying to repurpose a much larger orbital vehicle and bring back not only the first stage – in this the Super Heavy booster is very similar to the Falcon 9 first stage – but also the Starship vehicle. This represents a whole different challenge, as Starship will return to Earth at an orbital speed at around Mach 23. And after that, SpaceX engineers will have to figure out how to refuel Starships in low Earth orbit and how to keep a crew. alive on the way to Mars, on the surface and on the way back home. Each of these represents an enormous technical difficulty.
However, when I think about how far SpaceX has come in five years since that initial boat landing, I have only one overriding thought left. If this company could land missiles on boats in the middle of the ocean, what could it not do? And so now I am glad I missed the Apollo era if it means I can live right now, with an uncertain but boundless future ahead of us.
Listing image by SpaceX