SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket has already launched two successful trips to the International Space Station - a first for a private company - but the fledgling aerospace firm is looking to take its rocket to the next level: re-usability. After concluding its impressive Grasshopper test program last year (see video), SpaceX is ready to begin tests on the real thing.
The ultimate goal: building the first fully-reusable rocket. Rockets are expensive; rocket fuel is not. The Falcon 9, one of the cheapest available systems, costs about $60 million per launch. The fuel to fly it, on the other hand, cost just a few hundred thousand dollars. Unfortunately, at the conclusion of each flight, the rocket crashes into the sea, lost forever. Clearly reusing the most expensive part could generate significant savings (Musk estimates it could be a factor of 100). It's an ambitious goal, but one that could revolutionize our access to space.
With the Grasshopper program, SpaceX demonstrated that they could execute precision maneuvers with a rocket in flight. That's the first step to a successful recovery, but returning from high above the Earth is much more difficult that from just a thousand meters or so. The next step is to demonstrate that once shutdown, the Falcon 9's engines can be restarted to perform a landing. This was accomplished on the Falcon 9's inaugural flight to the ISS, but the rocket's rapid rotation hindered proper operation.
To help stabilize the rocket and demonstrate landing capabilities, the next Falcon 9 has been mounted with four 20-meter landing legs. If all goes well, these legs will be deployed at the conclusion of the flight. But, don't expect to see a rocket touching down near you anytime soon: for the foreseeable future these rockets will continue to plunge into the ocean. Until SpaceX can demonstrate accurate and reliable control over the entire process, the Falcon 9 will attempt precision landing on the ocean's surface, Musk reported.
The next Falcon 9 launch is slated for March 16, when SpaceX's Dragon capsule will make its third of twelve scheduled deliveries to the ISS.