One of the greatest unforeseen results of the space race is that it made the impossible feel routine. For anyone not inside Mission Control, a shuttle launch was news, but it ceased to be Must See TV. Then, without much fanfare, shuttle launches became a thing of the past. Routine got mothballed, and Americans lost their wonder, their thirst for exploration outside this planet. But a few intrepid entrepreneurs are seeking to change that. Their companies are finding success and reigniting that American thirst for making the impossible routine.
The currently most celebrated example: SpaceX. Last week multiple international media companies reported that Elon Musk’s company once again managed to land a rocket on a robotic ocean barge. This is the second such landing for the Falcon 9 rocket, and the third time this “reusable” rocket has been used.
This step is a breakthrough in private space travel. Before, the potential of leaving earth was massively cost prohibitive. Companies would have to build new boosters every time they wanted to leave the launch pad. Musk dreamed of reusable rockets, eliminating this hurdle keeping man from further exploring outside the atmosphere. Back in December, SpaceX successfully landed a rocket for the first time. Now, the company has managed the maneuver twice, once again taking what was considered impossible and making it, if not yet routine, at least plausible.
This time, even SpaceX was surprised. Due to the high altitude involved, the company bet against a recoverable landing, expecting the rocket to fail to hit the mark. No one was happier than Elon Musk when that proved to be underestimating his product and his people.
“Whoohoo!” the entrepreneur exclaimed on Twitter.
Whoohoo, indeed. Reusable rockets are a major piece of the for-profit space travel business model. Without them, most companies would fail to secure the funding necessary to make their exploration worth the trip, and it would seriously limit the financial viability of space tourism as a next-stage progression.
To date, SpaceX is the only company to successfully land a reusable rocket after a trip into space. Blue Origin, the Jeff Bezos-led competitor to SpaceX, has managed to land rockets on land, but they didn’t take anything into orbit.
The success of SpaceX has made the company a go-to delivery system for NASA, who scrapped their shuttle program a few years back. This gives SpaceX a definite market advantage. Can they keep it? That question will drive the next great human space race.
David Firester specializes in intelligence analysis and is based in NY.