The Next “Small Step”  in Aerospace Technology: Reusable Rockets

By Geneva Ng

Elon Musk is famous for being the mind behind a handful of companies, one of them being SpaceX, which began in 2002. This private company’s goal is to take humans to Mars. One may think that Musk wants to single-handedly save the human race by whisking us all away to this red planet to dodge the polluted future Earth inevitably faces, but that’s not quite correct. While he does consider this a possible future, Musk simply thinks that a reality in which humans aren’t contained to one planet but are sprinkled all over the galaxy is simply, as he stated in a World Government Summit interview, “exciting.” He’s spending millions of his own money to embark on an “exciting” adventure of design, testing, failure, more failure, and eventually incredible success.  Musk believes that the purpose of his life isn’t to solve problems, but to work on something fun, something that interests him and inspires others. He wants to show people that going to Mars is possible, and that more daunting voyages await those who are ready. He wants his success to spark awe and interest into the minds of everyone watching, whether they support or abhor him.

Space travel is expensive. NASA used to drop $500 million on a single launch. Musk is rich, but not that rich, so SpaceX designed reusable rockets to save a couple bucks each time they wanted to attempt another launch. There are three small rocket boosters attached to the back end of a capsule. This big chunk of American engineering flies off into the sky as a single piece with all the individual rockets pushing it off the ground. After a few hundred miles in the air, two of the boosters break off and fall gracefully back down to earth. A short while later, the last of the three does the same, and the capsule, now alone in space, is on its way to wherever it was designed to go. Some previous destinations include the Sun’s orbit. Launches of days past also used a similar procedure in which components would break off after they pushed the payload off the ground, but this left literal tons of space junk floating in Earth’s orbit. SpaceX’s boosters actually do return to Earth’s surface and touch down on their own little landing pads. By little, I mean 700 feet in diameter. This may not sound like much at first, but when you consider the enormous amount of factors that complicate the process of trying to successfully control a massive chunk of steel hurtling towards the earth, hitting a bullseye only a tenth of a mile wide isn’t exactly simple.

What this new aerospace technology means for the company is that all of SpaceX’s planned launches won’t leave nearly as much trash in Earth’s orbit, and more importantly, these rockets can be fueled up and used again to launch something else into space. The amount of money this saves is stupendous. It cost only $90 million to launch this vessel, named the Falcon Heavy. Also, budget aside, this is an unprecedented move in the field of space travel. The concept of a 650-ton metal tube whizzing through the air at unimaginable speeds, then reorienting itself to touchdown on earth was an unfathomable notion until now. The moment when the last of the three boosters landed perfectly upright on its landing pad was almost overwhelming for those who worked tirelessly on this project for years. It was a moment when everyone watching saw unlimited potential in the future of space travel; a moment when kids, teens, and adults all felt a youthful spark of inspiration. Musk achieved both his goals that day: successfully launching and landing his rockets, and capturing the minds of the ambitious. Hopefully, this groundbreaking achievement will inspire others to take their next small steps, or giant leaps, towards their seemingly impossible goals.