SpaceX is constantly making headlines, so to say that the next launch is important seems disingenuous; after all, between supplying our astronauts on the ISS and successfully landing the first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket, it seems as though every launch is important. Which certainly is the case. There’s nothing easy or routine about spaceflight, after all.
But SpaceX’s next launch, currently scheduled for Thursday, March 30, a 6:27 PM EDT, is different. It’s historic. And if it’s successful, it’s going to shape the trajectory of things to come. Tomorrow, SpaceX plans on flying a reused first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket for the first time.
Rockets usually work in stages to optimize weight and fuel calculations; the more weight you have, the more fuel required to drag it up out of Earth’s atmosphere. And let’s not forget that fuel itself is the most significant component of a rocket’s weight. That’s why rockets work in stages; when a stage burns up all of its fuel, it detaches, relieving the rocket of its weight, and the next stage continues on. In eight separate missions since 2015, SpaceX has been guiding that first stage in a controlled descent back to Earth, landing it upright with the eventual goal of reusing them in future launches.
Reusability is key to spaceflight; everything to do with going to space is expensive, so anywhere you can safely and reliably cut costs is a huge help. If SpaceX can successfully and safely achieve this launch—carrying a communications satellite into orbit—it’s going to be the first time anyone has reused part of a rocket after a vertical landing. The first stage of the rocket has the biggest and most expensive engines; if the company can get to a place where operation of reused first stages is a proven technology, it will cut costs drastically and make spaceflight that much easier.
It’s around $62 million to send a full payload to space on one of SpaceX’s brand new Falcon 9 rockets; sending your satellite or cargo up on a refurbished SpaceX rocket? A cool $40 million. But SpaceX is giving its customer—telecom satellite operator SES—a discount on this flight, not only for using an already flown (or in SpaceX’s terms, “flight proven”) first stage, but also for being the first to take a chance on the reusable technology.
Back in 2016, SpaceX’s rival company Blue Origin successfully relaunched its own rocket, New Shepard, but the smaller craft has only achieved suborbital flights. Tomorrow’s launch of the Falcon 9 could mark the first time a reusable rocket is launched into orbital space.
It’s a first step, of course—a reusable first stage needs to be followed by a reusable second stage, and on and on, to truly bring down the cost of spaceflight. But it’s an important one. You can watch SpaceX’s launch as a live stream on their YouTube channel tomorrow.