by Prasad Ganti
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket was recently launched from Cape Canaveral. It was a routine launch on a routine mission except for a couple of differences, which are important steps for a brighter future. SpaceX or Space Exploration Technologies, started by Elon Musk, has been one of the earliest successful private sector ventures to routinely launch rockets to carry cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).
After initial failures, SpaceX mastered the art and science of rocket launches to hurl payloads into space in a very precise and safe manner proving that a private venture apart from NASA can do this complex maneuvering. Wanting to improve the economics of carrying cargo into space, SpaceX made the first stage of the rocket reusable. The first stage of a rocket gives a heavy boost towards the outer confines of Earth’s atmosphere and falls off after exhausting all its fuel. The second stage then takes over and pushes the rocket and its payload into the space. The detached first stage falls into the ocean as debris.
The one-time use of the multiple-stages rockets cause the economics of launches to skyrocket. If somehow the first stage can be reused, the costs of the launch could be reduced significantly. Towards this end, SpaceX wanted to have the first stage return to Earth and land safely so that it could be recovered, refurbished and reused.
SpaceX has made several attempts to make the first stage return and land safely. After a few failures, it was able to make it touch down on land, but not on a floating platform. The recent attempt is the first time that the first stage returned and successfully landed on a platform in the Atlantic Ocean. Of course, there is still more work to be done to make the first stage truly reusable. A great first step which bodes well for the future.
The second major achievement of the mission was in the payload itself. In addition to the routine supplies to ISS, the payload included an inflatable module called BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module). It is a precursor to the inflatable habitats and structures to be built in space or on other planets like Mars. An inflatable module is lighter than metal, which was used in the construction of ISS. It takes up less space when sent into space. If this module can withstand the rigors of space like vacuum, radiation and micrometeorites, it will herald a new era of construction in space. This experiment too is the result of a private sector initiative by both Bigelow Aerospace and SpaceX performing under contract to NASA.
Given that space flights are being democratized in today’s globalized world, the superpowers do not have the monopoly on technology anymore. Rocket science is very complex and expensive. Escaping the bonds of Earth’s gravity is not easy. The private sector initiatives towards space economics and NASA’s mantra of faster, better and cheaper will greatly help the cause.