SpaceX has launched a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS), which would have been big news a few years ago. Now, it happens all the time. However, there is something very important about this most recent flight. For the first time, SpaceX has reused a Falcon 9 for a NASA launch, and this is also the first time it has sent a reused Dragon capsule to the ISS. This is a big step toward 100 percent reusability in space travel.
The launch took place this morning at 10:36 AM Eastern time after a number of delays. The launch at Cape Canaveral went off without a hitch. Not only did the Falcon 9 successfully deliver the Dragon to orbit, it came back down to Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. SpaceX can now refurbish the rocket and use it yet again. The Dragon capsule is expected to reach the ISS on Sunday carrying a load of supplies and new equipment. There might be some Christmas presents in there, too.
The Falcon 9 used in this launch is no stranger to NASA. SpaceX used the same first stage booster to launch a different Dragon capsule to the ISS back in June. Following that launch, the rocket came back down to the same landing zone it used after today’s flight. The Dragon capsule that’s currently en route to the ISS previously visited it back in April 2015. Unlike the Falcon 9, Dragon capsules don’t land propulsively. They just have parachutes.
NASA has been understandably cautious with SpaceX’s pre-flown rockets. The company has been able to use them for commercial flights that deliver satellites to orbit. None of the re-flown rockets have shown an increased incidence of problems, and SpaceX hasn’t had a failure in flight since the June 2015 explosion during an ISS resupply mission. There was a launch pad explosion in 2016, but that rocket had not been flown before.
— Intl. Space Station (@Space_Station) December 15, 2017
Launching a rocket and Dragon capsule that have been recovered from past launches gets the company very close to truly reusable vehicles. SpaceX previously claimed that reusable rocket technology could save it as much as 30 percent on the cost of getting to space. Launching a new Falcon 9 costs a bit more than $ 60 million, so a reused rocket might cost around $ 40 million for customers. However, it’s unlikely SpaceX would be passing all the savings along to customers. SpaceX has reportedly spent about $ 1 billion developing its reusable rocket technology, so it could pay for itself in a few years.