Earlier today, SpaceX finally landed a booster rocket after sending a payload into space. They’ve had several attempts that came close to succeeding but didn’t quite make it. Landing the booster is potentially important because it means that we may be close to having reusable rockets, which might lower the cost of a launch by some significant amount. I’ve never sent anything into space, so I can’t really say exactly where all the money goes, but I imagine that the rockets must be quite expensive if so much effort has been put into a recoverable and reusable rocket system.
Some supplies and equipment bound for the International Space Station were launched on Saturday. While this is typically a fairly routine process, this particular launch involved a SpaceX rocket that is meant to eventually be reusable. Rather than letting the initial stages of the rocket fall into the ocean, as is usually done, operators attempted to recover the first stage intact by landing it on a floating landing pad.
Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work, and the rocket landed a bit too hard and broke apart. The attempt was apparently quite close to working, which means that we may be close to a reusable launch system. That could be much cheaper than current methods where the rockets must be built anew for each launch. SpaceX officials claim that the chances of success were estimated to only be around 50-50, so the failure was not totally unexpected.
Earlier today, NASA announced the winners of contracts for developing spacecraft to send astronauts to the Interantional Space Station. Both Boeing and SpaceX have been awarded contracts, with Boeing receiving $4.2 billion and SpaceX getting $2.6 billion.
I would guess that Boeing received the most because it has a long track record of supplying equipment to the US government. NASA can safely assume that Boeing is capable of completing the contract. SpaceX hopes to be able to do spaceflight cheaper than anyone else but also hasn’t previously been involved in such a major undertaking. The contract shows that NASA is confident that SpaceX can do it, but they also won’t want to risk the whole program by awarding all the money to a company that hasn’t shown itself to be reliable.
Having two options is also a good idea so that a delay in one of them doesn’t necessarily delay the return of NASA-led manned launches. It might also turn out that the two vehicles are better at different things, so maybe some missions will favor Boeing and some SpaceX. Having some competition might also keep costs down.
NASA hopes to have the first launches in 2017, so we’ll still have a couple more years without having manned launch capabilities. Many had criticized the US government for ending the shuttle program because of this gap with no manned launch vehicle. The shuttle was a decades-old design that was very expensive and very risky for the crew, so I think that discontinuing shuttle launches was probably the right move. We should have already had a replacement vehicle ready, but not having one is not a sufficient justification to continue risking astronauts’ lives when safer but not US-led options were available.