SpaceX landed its rocket… on a barge!

By Benjamin Vermette

SpaceX launched its ninth unmanned cargo resupply mission to the ISS on April 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Alan Walters / awaltersphoto.com)

SpaceX launched its ninth unmanned cargo resupply mission to the ISS on April 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Alan Walters / awaltersphoto.com)

 

The ambitious company SpaceX launched its ninth unmanned cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on April 8 2016 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The mission, dubbed CRS-8, will be forever written about in history books.

CEO of Tesla Motors, PayPal, Solar City and SpaceX, young billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk proved his earnest intention of installing a permanent rocket-reusability strategy by landing, for the first time in human history, the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on a drone-like barge-ship.

Note that it’s not the first time they succeeded in landing the Falcon 9 on something; they did it on steady ground in Cape Canaveral in December 2015 (click here to read more about this mission).

The following youtube video posted by SpaceX captures their most recent feat. 

Following a perfect launch on Friday afternoon by the Falcon 9 rocket, everyone was becoming excited for another ‘experimental’ rocket landing on a barge. After deploying its Dragon cargo spacecraft into orbit and towards the ISS, the first stage flipped over, found the right trajectory, slowed down from 20,000 km/h, and succeeded in landing on the barge in a non-explosive fashion.

It wasn’t SpaceX’s first try to complete this feat; they’ve already dedicated other rockets to this. In other words, the rockets blew up trying to land on the barge (read more about these attempts in my previous articles: Hubble, SpaceX, Falcon, Messenger and More... and SpaceX Failed to Land Their Rocket on a Barge-ship).Elon Musk called them RUDs (Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly).


But now, it’s a different story. Launching a rocket, deploying gear into space intended for some humans on the ISS, then landing the remaining part of the rocket, all inside 9 minutes, how can this even be physically possible? Well, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Elon Musk.

“It's another step toward the stars,” he said during a press conference.

It is indeed, but what does it mean for the future of space exploration?

Landing the rocket on steady ground, as they did in December 2015, is great. However, landing it at sea is essential for SpaceX’s reusability strategy. After launch, the rocket is hundreds of kilometers east of the Cape. Landing it on an autonomous drone-ship not only saves fuel but when mastered, will also diminish risks.

Adding extra fuel to a rocket for landing may not seem cost-effective, but building a rocket from scratch is way more expensive. As a matter of fact, building a Falcon 9 costs $60 million, while refueling it is only about $250,000.

Musk predicts his reusability strategy to contribute cutting the spending “100-fold”. According to his predictions, SpaceX’s launches’ fees could shrink from $61.2 million (compared to $225 million for its competitor ULA) down to $600 000. This 44 year-old visionary hopes that one rocket will be able to support up to 20 spaceflights.

Even if the space industry-leading company SpaceX performed an out-of-this-world accomplishment, its main mission was of course to respect its contract with NASA, which is to deliver goods to the ISS when needed.

As you may have guessed, this is exactly what they did, the Dragon cargo spacecraft that successfully launched on April 8th was flawlessly delivered to the ISS, where it arrived and docked on April 10th.

But what exactly was on the Dragon spacecraft?

First, there was equipment for an interesting science investigation, which is called the Rodent Research-3-Eli Lilly Investigation.

When humans reside in space, gravity no longer affects their body. This results in decreases in bone density, muscle strength and heart-pumping efficiency. This is why astronauts need to exercise so much in space!

This investigation will use mice to better understand the effects of a particular antibody known for its capability “To prevent muscle wasting in mice on Earth”.

Another science experiment, called Micro-10, “will study fungi in space for the purpose of potentially developing new medicine for use both in space and on Earth”. A couple similar science experiments, generally concerning the study of the human body in space, are now possible due to the arrival of the required equipment on the ISS.

But the major experiment that the Dragon spacecraft carried, was not typical. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is an inflatable module that attaches to the station. It is only a prototype (for now), but the long-term goal is for BEAM to be used in NASA’s future missions to Mars.

After installation on April 16, the inflatable structure grew to attain almost 13 feet in length while having a 10.5-feet diameter.

It is scheduled to stay on the space station for a period of two years, during which the astronauts of the ISS will enter the module three-to-four times a year to retrieve data from the sensors onboard.

If everything goes as planned, Bigelow Aerospace, BEAM’s contractor, might launch another of their prototypes into space by 2020. But this time, it won’t be BEAM, but what they call the autonomous B330 expanding habitat. 

A depiction of how the B330 prototype is expected to look like in 2020. (Bigelow Aerospace)

A depiction of how the B330 prototype is expected to look like in 2020. (Bigelow Aerospace)

As a matter of fact, Bigelow Aerospace announced, on April 11, that they have discussed a partnership with the private rocket manufacturer United Launch Alliance (ULA) to launch their B330 prototype in 2020.

The idea of an inflatable space module is promising: it takes less room on a rocket, but once in space, it provides a place for astronauts to live and work. NASA may even consider these modules when the time comes to plan a journey to Mars!

While the ISS is studying medicine in microgravity, hence its motto “Off the Earth for the Earth”, it is also considering prototypes for long-duration spaceflights and studying the effects it would have on a human.

The journey to Mars is happening!