While you were enjoying the long weekend, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, dropped off some satellites in space, and then returned the rocket back to earth in a vertical landing on a platform in the Pacific Ocean. The mission was called “Iridium-1”, named after the gear that was on board.
Here’s how it went down (or up?): After boosting the second stage into orbit, the first stage turned around, slowed down using rocket boosters, turned around again, deployed grid fins for steering and stability, and then landed on a drone ship called “Just Read the Instructions.“
SpaceX has had a hard time getting its Falcon 9 rockets to behave in the past year or so. In January 2016, a vertical landing crashed at the last minute when one of the landing legs failed. Then, in September 2016, a Falcon 9 rocket exploded during pre-flight procedures. The company recently reported losses to the tune of $250 million after successfully launching only 8 of 20 missions in 2015.
So why should you care? This weekend’s successful mission has helped bolster confidence in the technology. This weekend’s launch wasn’t just a test: Iridium-1 launched 70 voice and data communications satellites for client Iridium. This means other prospective clients are likely to warm up to the technology.
The successful launch and return of the Falcon 9 also means that SpaceX can get back to its aggressive launch schedule for other clients and work toward ultimately launching manned Dragon missions in 2018. You may have heard of Dragon before, as it’s the program that will ultimately result in Mars colonization missions.
So not only are we seeing more development in space launch technology, but we’re also seeing a growing private space market. We’re also witnessing the first re-usable launch technology since the dismantled NASA Space Shuttle system. Good stuff for any space geek.