It's well established that SpaceX, the private rocket company owned by entrepreneur Elon Musk, is a world leader in getting to space. What you probably haven't heard is that SpaceX's real ambition isn't to win NASA contracts and beat out Boeing or Lockheed Martin to make very good money resupplying the International Space Station (they’ve done that). Instead, SpaceX is furiously working to build a fully autonomous space program — rockets, landing pads, and spaceflight without the pilot. In fact, Musk et al have been testing just this technology in plain sight (with plenty of spectacular crashes) for years now.
In a demonstration this week, the company managed to get a robotic Falcon 9 rocket onto a robotic barge, outfitted with a landing pad. Then the rocket tipped, and everything blew up. If you can get past all the destruction, you'll see progress here. This program is getting closer to Musk's goal with each test flight. This is about more than just a competitive advantage for SpaceX. It's the project most likely to make human spaceflight a practicality, instead of what it is right now — one of the least profitable, and most financially disastrous endeavors in history.
When the Space Shuttle was still flying, it cost an estimated $450 millon per launch. Over 30 years and 135 launches, the program cost the United States $196 billion. While it's impossible to put a price tag on the science that resulted from those manned missions into orbit, the shuttle was the budgetary equivalent of an arterial spray. Worse still, the orbiter was intended to be a vast leap forward into reusability. But the so-called spaceplane wound up riding on massive, disposable boosters. And it wasn't succeeded by a more cost-effective space vehicle. It simply disappeared, and NASA gave up on the notion of reuse, instead asking private companies to build replacement systems whose manned compartments sit on huge disposable rockets.
SpaceX and Musk deserve credit for landing both the cargo resupply contract from NASA, and one that might send humans to the International Space Station (the only current way of getting there is aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule). For an upstart company to compete with established rocketeers like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Orbital Sciences is nothing less than amazing. But the innovations that SpaceX has demonstrated so far have been relatively subtle. Costs have been shaved here and there, and the price of getting to orbit is becoming marginally more attractive. The state of the art is inching forward, even if it's one that doesn't impact most of our lives in any noticeable way.
Legitimately resuable rockets, however, make this far more than a business story. Launching one of SpaceX's Falcon 9s into orbit costs roughly $200,000 for the fuel, and $54 million for the rocket itself. A Falcon that autonomously lands itself would still need to be fitted with a number of replacement components, but if even half of its cost could be recouped, the impact would be enormous.
The cheaper it is to use rockets, the cheaper it is to expand scientific research and manufacturing in space. This could lead to private companies taking advantage of the unique effects of microgravity to develop new drugs and nanoscale components (right now, such research is incredibly limited, and reserved for government-approved programs). Space tourism, too, would finally be feasible. A trip to orbit currently costs around $35 million, assuming you can also spend months becoming a bona fide cosmonaut. Reusable rockets wouldn't require training — even SpaceX's manned flights to the station are going to be self-piloted — and it's easy to imagine such a flight priced at a few million dollars per passenger. A lucky few would get to orbit on their company's dime, for tours of duty aboard those corporate research or manufacturing platforms.
In other words, life would expand into orbit, in a meaningful, permanent, and relatively affordable way. What happens next — the Moon or Mars, for example — would still depend on a host of other concerns. But we would be pushing outward. The next robotic recovery attempt is slated for June. As fun as it is to watch rockets and robots blow up, let's hope SpaceX gets it right.