Analysis Monday’s historic landing of the first stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is possibly the most significant event in rocketry since Apollo 8 showed we could get humans to the Moon and back safely.The Falcon rocket’s first stage is hugely important. Its nine engines power the vehicle out of our thick atmosphere – the process which accounts for around 75 per cent of the total hardware costs of the entire launch vehicle. As such, getting it back to Earth in one piece could be a huge cost saver.To give an example, if we had to throw away an aircraft every time it flew, then flying would be a very rare and expensive occurrence. We’ve done this for years with rockets, however, which explains the high cost of getting into space.It’s currently costing NASA $70m and change to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station and cargo can cost $10,000 a pound to get into orbit. The vast bulk of that cost is the rocket itself, which usually is destroyed in the launch.
Elon Musk’s idea is that by landing and refurbishing the rockets he uses, the cost of orbital delivery can be slashed. Take into account the lift capability of the forthcoming Falcon Heavy rocket and the cost will fall even further.As the costs of getting into orbit fall, we can actually start doing more stuff up there, like building spacecraft that can explore more of the Solar System. Any trip to Mars is going to require a craft built in orbit, or at least assembled there.Making unmanned probes in orbit could be more reliable that building them on Earth. At NASA Goddard facility there is a room-sized vibrator that is used to test space hardware for the rigors of launch. Getting into orbit can subject spacecraft to tremendous vibrations so the hardware needs to be very finely engineered to make the trip without cracking up on the way out of the gravity well.Monday’s landing bodes well for this, and will radically change orbital economics. But SpaceX isn’t the first firm to land a rocket after use, so what’s the big deal with the firm.