NASA has been dealing with continued assaults on its budget for decades. With increased tightening of those purse strings (just this year, another $300 million were cut from its Earth science program alone, largely as a deliberate snub to its climate change investigations), the field of space exploration has opened up to private companies. Last night, one of those companies achieved a miracle.
One reason for the prohibitive cost of space travel is the single-use nature of rockets. Although most people can recall some kind of classic sci-fi image of a rocket nimbly touching down, backwards, onto a planet, then taking off again, this has been pure fantasy up until now. After delivering their payload into orbit, they have traditionally fallen back to Earth as little more than immensely expensive scrap metal.
That’s why reusable rocket technology has been the holy grail of space exploration in recent years, with tech guru Elon Musk himself claiming that any attempt to colonize Mars would be hopeless without it.
It is appropriate, then, that Musk’s own company, SpaceX, is the one responsible for last night’s mission, which saw the Falcon 9 rocket propel its second stage (containing 11 Orbcomm communication satellites) into low orbit, then successfully (indeed, gracefully) touch down at the designated landing site, just a few miles away from the launch pad.
It’s the first time a rocket has ever delivered a payload and then landed safely back on Earth. The total flight time was only a little over 10 minutes, but it’s a flight that will be recorded in the history books as the moment further manned exploration of our galaxy became a very real possibility.