Environment & Science

SpaceX faces more challenges now that it has landed a rocket

Space X's Falcon 9 rocket launches on January 10, 2015 as it heads to space from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying the Dragon CRS5 spacecraft on a resupply mision to the International Space Station (ISS). The Dragon cargo vessel should arrive at the space station at 6:12 am (1112 GMT) on January 12, NASA said. The cargo ship is carrying more than 5,000 pounds (2,268 kilograms) of supplies to the astronauts living in orbit.       AFP PHOTO/BRUCE WEAVER        (Photo credit should read BRUCE WEAVER/AFP/Getty Images)
Space X's Falcon 9 rocket launches on January 10, 2015 as it heads to space from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying the Dragon CRS5 spacecraft on a resupply mision to the International Space Station (ISS). The Dragon cargo vessel should arrive at the space station at 6:12 am (1112 GMT) on January 12, NASA said. The cargo ship is carrying more than 5,000 pounds (2,268 kilograms) of supplies to the astronauts living in orbit. AFP PHOTO/BRUCE WEAVER (Photo credit should read BRUCE WEAVER/AFP/Getty Images)
BRUCE WEAVER/AFP/Getty Images

Listen to story

00:57
Download this story 0.0MB

So you've landed a rocket. Awesome. Does that mean you are ready to load it back up and send it off again? Hardly.

Hawthorne-based SpaceX made history Tuesday by launching its Falcon 9 rocket into space, deploying cargo and then landing it in one piece. Ultimately the company wants reuse its booster rockets over and over like an airplane. But experts say it'll take a lot of work to get there. 

Now the company must examine, refurbish and extensively test the gear before it can fly again.

The goal is to one day reuse these 14-story, first stage rockets, rather than dumping them in the ocean and scrapping them as is custom.

Since it's estimated that a single Falcon 9 can cost tens of million dollars, reusing them could save the company millions and dramatically cut the price of putting things into orbit.

A graphic from showing how the Falcon 9 landing process works. Image from SpaceX.
A graphic from showing how the Falcon 9 landing process works. Image from SpaceX.
SpaceX

Safely landing a rocket is the first step and quite an accomplishment said Dirk Gibson, a professor at the University of New Mexico who studies the private space sector.

"Even though there are a lot of subsequent steps to be taken, this is the dawn of a new era," he said.

Of course, flying to space takes a toll on any piece of equipment. 

Now that SpaceX has its first successful landing, the company needs to see what condition the rocket is in, said Greg Autry, a professor at USC's Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.

SpaceX Landing video

"Space X will have to go through and take a very close look a the structure to make sure that the welds are secure, that there is no stress on the metal that might create a failure with this vehicle," Autry said.

Engineers will also need to inspect the engines, the pumps and pretty much every other part. Many might need replacing, which cuts into potential savings.

Autry noted that even NASA's Space Shuttle, which was also a reusable vehicle, cost millions to refurbish after each flight. Much of it had to be rebuilt each time.

"That's not something SpaceX wants to do," he said. Rather, the company hopes it will need to replace only a few components then simply refuel the rocket before launching it again.

Once the inspections are through, SpaceX will need to start tests, said Paul Damphousse, head of the private space consulting firm of General Astronautics.

That means starting with ground tests to fire up the engines. Then Damphousse said they'll need to fly the rockets "a lot to really see how it performs over multiple flights."

All of this could take months, or even years.

Then there is the challenge of of finding customers who are willing to risk sending their precious cargo on a second-hand ride. After all, space is expensive, and no company or government wants to see their cargo lost to an accident.

Still Damphousse thinks if SpaceX can repeatedly show that these rockets are safe, customers will start to trust the technology.

"Someone’s going take that leap and when they do and when it is successful, then others will follow,"  he said.