Imagine if you had to build a new car every time you went somewhere. That expensive method has been standard operating procedure in the orbital launch industry for sixty years.
SpaceX is trying to change that. Contracted by NASA to deliver cargo to the International Space Station, the private company has been testing autonomous return technology in the last year and a half in order to eventually save its flight vehicles.
It works something like this: after the first stage has burned out and the Dragon capsule has been dispatched to chase down the ISS, the first stage coasts briefly on its own momentum to a peak altitude of roughly 87 miles before flipping end-over-end and relighting the motors to begin a controlled return to Earth.
The company has been testing this technology on successive resupply flights since late 2013, first by successfully relighting the main engines, then by achieving a controlled descent to a soft water landing and, finally, on the last two flights, by trying to land upright on an ocean barge.
The SpaceX video above shows the final moments of the seven-story tall Falcon 9 first stage as it tried Wednesday to land on "Just Read the Instructions."
The eventual goal is to autonomously return every rocket stage, including the capsule, Dragon, to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for refitting and re-flight. Should the SpaceX succeed, the cost to its customers for orbital access will be exponentially lowered.
The ISS, by the way, successfully grappled Dragon this morning and will soon begin offloading the capsule's contents, which include crew supplies, science experiments and a number of small satellites called "cubesats" that will be launched in very low orbits from the space station itself. In two or three weeks, Dragon will be loaded with refuse and completed science experiments before parachuting to the Pacific ocean.