Tuesday, December 22, 2015

And We are Wanderers Still: SpaceX Makes Successful Upright Landing After Launching Satellites into Orbit

          By Brian Orlotti

On Dec. 21, 2015, SpaceX made its eagerly awaited return to flight by launching an upgraded Falcon 9 rocket from Florida. The launch placed eleven Orbcomm commsats into low Earth orbit and, in an historic first, successfully landed the first stage of the Falcon-9 back on Earth. 

The mission’s success is a triumph for SpaceX and an event as epochal as the 1969 Moon landing or SpaceshipOne’s Ansari X-Prize victory in 2004. The dawn of reusable rockets promises to drastically cut the cost of spaceflight and usher in a new age of human space exploration.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk during the December 21st, 2015, "ORBCOMM-2 Full Launch Webcast." the eleven satellites carried on the upgraded Falcon-9 were deployed approximately 20 minutes after liftoff, completing a 17-satellite, low Earth orbit constellation for Orbcomm. Screenshot c/o SpaceX.

The Orbcomm mission is now the jewel in SpaceX’s crown of successes, which include being the first private firm granted a $2.6Bln USD ($3.6Bln CDN) NASA contract to ferry crew and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), and being certified by the US Air Force as a launch provider for military satellites (breaking a monopoly held by United Launch Alliance). The mission was all the more triumphant coming as it did six months after a Falcon 9 exploded during flight due to a failed strut in the rocket's upper stage liquid oxygen tank.

SpaceX has faced many challenges in the thirteen years since its founding. These include public skepticism, hostility from the traditional US space industry and its political allies, anti-NewSpace factions within NASA and the US military and various other financial and technical troubles.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and his team overcame each of these obstacles in turn through persistence, creativity and sheer skill. The little-rocket-company-that-nobody-thought-could, now lies at the heart of an industrial empire poised to reshape not only our world, but many others.

This still from a 2011 SpaceX mission concept video shows a Dragon space capsule landing on the surface of Mars. More recent concept art focuses on the 2013 Red Dragon Mars lander design. Graphic c/o SpaceX.

From the very beginning, Elon Musk made clear SpaceX’s ultimate goal of establishing a new branch of Humanity on Mars. At the very end of the Dec 21st SpaceX webcast, an announcer reaffirmed this with a playful nod to the latest Star Wars movie by stating “And remember; the goal is Mars because nobody wants to go back to Jakku.”

With the advent of reusable rocketry, a long-cherished dream now seems within grasp. As astronomer Carl Sagan stated in his landmark 1980 television series "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage:"
Brian Orlotti.
Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still.  
We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.

Brian Orlotti is a network operations centre analyst at Shomi, a Canadian provider of on-demand internet streaming media and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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