I was born just four months after the last Apollo astronauts wiped the gray dust off their spacesuits and lifted off the Moon. As my interest in space grew over the years and writing about this industry became my profession, I felt a deep sense of regret that I missed that glorious moment of triumph in our shared space history. I lived with that regret for decades, until April 8, 2016.
Today five years ago, SpaceX successfully landed the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket on a ship.
He was unprepared for the experience of watching a thin black-and-white rocket fall from the sky, against the blue backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean, and land on a small unmanned ship. When the whitecaps collided with the side of the boat, it seemed like a portal opening into the future. This advancement in rocket technology eliminated any regrets I had for missing Apollo. Because, in my opinion, landing a first stage of the Falcon 9 at sea represented an essential step in reducing the cost of getting people and payloads into space and unlocking a bright future in space.
After nearly a dozen failed attempts, subsequent landings soon filled a SpaceX hangar full of used rockets. This took some SpaceX engineers by surprise. “We were even surprised that all of a sudden we had ten first stages or something like that,” said Hans Koenigsmann, an early SpaceX employee, a few years later. “And we thought, well, we don’t really take that into account.”
Need for sea
A few months before this ship’s landing, of course, SpaceX had successfully returned a first stage of the Falcon 9 to its “landing zone” along the Florida coast, near its launch pad. This was a great achievement. But landing on a drone ship is much more difficult. When landing on the coast, only the rocket moves. When landing in the sea, both the rocket and the drone move, and there are sea states and more to consider.
However, the economy practically requires landing in the lower range of a launch site. This is because over the course of a launch, a rocket gradually tilts from a vertical to horizontal orientation as it prepares to launch its second stage on an orbital trajectory. At this point, tons of propellant are required to stop this horizontal velocity and reverse course back to the launch site. It is much more fuel efficient to make 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 an unmanned ship can lift about 5.5 tons into geostationary transfer orbit, compared to 3.5 tons for a rocket landing at the launch site. Had SpaceX not figured out how to land the first stage of the Falcon 9 on a drone ship, it would have removed about 40 percent of the rocket’s lift capacity, a large penalty that would have negated the benefit of reusing the rockets.
Nearly a decade ago, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin patented the concept of landing a rocket on a barge for this very reason. (This forced SpaceX to go to court, and its challenge against the patent was ultimately successful.) But there is a big difference between knowing something and actually doing something. Since acquiring its patent, Blue Origin has yet to launch an orbital rocket, let alone land one. Bezos has adapted and named a platform ship, Jacklynbut it is unlikely to catch a rocket before 2023 at the earliest.
On the contrary, since his first successful landing on the drone ship Of course i still love you, SpaceX has safely returned 56 more Falcon 9 rockets at sea. Ocean landings have proven to be an extraordinarily enabling technology. Of SpaceX’s 10 orbital rocket launches in 2021, each was put into orbit in a previously flown first stage. Some returned to space four weeks after a previous launch. By landing its first Falcon 9 rocket at sea, SpaceX started a launch revolution. The reuse of rockets is no longer a novelty, it is considered an essential part of the business.
“I’m really surprised when I see new launch vehicles in development that are not reusable,” Peter Beck, founder of Rocket Lab, told me in December.
A personal journey
The dramatic landing of that first stage also launched me on a kind of personal journey. I realized that SpaceX wasn’t just a really cool company doing cool things in space. Rather, it was the transformative space venture of my life.
I began to report more deeply on the activities of the company, trying to understand where they came from and to collect more fully the motivations of the founder and chief engineer of SpaceX, Elon Musk. This eventually resulted in a book, Liftoff, on the origins of the company. One thing I took from this report is that as miraculous as automatic drone ship landings may seem, they are just one of a long list of miracles that must be performed to bring humans to the surface of Mars.
In the 2000s, SpaceX nearly died multiple times as a startup with its Falcon 1 rocket. In the 2010s, SpaceX replicated the Falcon 9, winning the first contracts for NASA launches and commercial satellites. These missions, in turn, gave SpaceX engineers a breathing space to experiment with the recovery and restoration of used rockets. Today, thanks to this, they can fly the first stages quickly and with significantly reduced costs.
Now, with Starship, SpaceX is looking to repurpose a much larger orbital vehicle and bring back not only the first stage – in this, the Super Heavy booster is much like the Falcon 9 first stage – but also the Starship vehicle. This represents a completely different challenge, as Starship will return to Earth at orbital speeds, around Mach 23. And after this, SpaceX engineers will have to figure out how to refuel Starships in low Earth orbit, and then how to maintain a crew. I live on the way to Mars, on the surface and back home. Each of these represents an enormous engineering difficulty.
However, reflecting on how far SpaceX has come in the five years since a ship first landed, I am left with only one overriding thought. If this company could land rockets on ships in the middle of the ocean, what couldn’t it do? And now I’m glad I lost the Apollo era if it means that I can be alive right now, with an uncertain but limitless future ahead of me.
Image listing by SpaceX