When SpaceX successfully launched and landed its pre-flown (or “flight-proven” if you prefer) Falcon 9 rocket back in March, there was no avoiding the excitement. News of the launch leapt up Reddit, took the Twittersphere by storm, littered Facebook newsfeeds and covered the front pages of newspapers across the country. From the watercooler to the dinner table, talk of this new age of space exploration dominated the week’s conversations.
Space X landed the first stage of a rocket back on the ground! We saw the future tonight. pic.twitter.com/BacyHrr3uK— Bill Nye (@BillNye) December 22, 2015
There hasn’t been so much buzz around a space endeavor in decades. But why? What makes Elon Musk’s recycled rocket so groundbreaking? Read our breakdown below.
Follow the money
Above all else, the most significant advantage a reusable rocket compared to previous single-use models is the cost savings. Whereas in previous space missions a large (and pricey) portion of the rocket would detach and fall to its demise once in orbit, Musk’s Falcon 9 landed elegantly back on Earth, right on the bullseye, ready for its next flight. This has huge implications for the future of spaceflight, commercial space tourism in particular.
As Musk explained in a BBC interview,
"A 747 costs something like $300m and you'd need two of them to do a round trip. And yet people aren't paying half a billion dollars to fly from LA to London, and that's because that 747 can be used tens of thousands of times.”
Next stop, Mars
As the concept of reusable rockets gains traction, so too does the dream of sending people to Mars. No longer does this idea seem too unbelievably expensive and ambitious to pull off.
SpaceX isn’t the only company hoping to achieve such a feat. Boeing and now NASA are also making Mars a top priority. In March 2017, Congress passed a bill authorizing $19.5 billion in funding for NASA, with the goal of sending humans to Mars by the 2030s (although the White House would prefer it to happen earlier).
Elon Musk hopes to beat that timeline by eight years. He plans to send manned missions to Mars as early as 2022.
It’s a multi-planetary life for us
For many in the space industry, including Elon Musk, vacations to Mars aren’t the end goal of reusable rocket technology. The ultimate aim is to become a multi-planetary species—to colonize other planets and secure the future of human life long after Earth becomes uninhabitable.
In an interview with Aero Magazine back in 2014, Musk put it this way:
“I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen, in which case being poor or having a disease would be irrelevant, because humanity would be extinct. It would be like, ‘Good news, the problems of poverty and disease have been solved, but the bad news is there aren’t any humans left.’
I think we have a duty to maintain the light of consciousness, to make sure it continues into the future."
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Banner image by SpaceX via Wikimedia Commons