Private space flight: Swans and falcons

The space age began as a competition. In the 1950s and 1960s America and the Soviet Union took rocketry from the age of the V2 to that of the Saturn V in a race first to build nuclear missiles, and…

The space age began as a competition. In the 1950s and 1960s America and the Soviet Union took rocketry from the age of the V2 to that of the Saturn V in a race first to build nuclear missiles, and then to put a man on the Moon. But when America did get to the Moon, the fire went out of the competition, and so did innovation. The only genuine novelty after 1970, the Space Shuttle, can be seen in hindsight for what it actually was: an answer to the question of how to keep America’s space programme going, rather than how to launch payloads cheaply and reliably.

But competition is now back, and it seems to be driving innovation. The difference is that the competitors are firms, not governments. And on September 29th, in rather different ways, two of them, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, showed their mettle.

SpaceX, a firm started by Elon Musk, an entrepreneur who made his fortune from PayPal, made history last year when one of its Dragon spacecraft became the first privately built and operated vehicle to dock with the International Space Station (ISS). Earlier this year another Dragon fulfilled the first stage of SpaceX’s 12-mission, $1.6 billion contract to haul cargo to the station. That, however, is not enough for Mr Musk. He wants to bring his launch costs down—which means, in his view, recycling as much kit as possible. And on the 29th he took a step towards that goal.
The launch itself was of an upgraded version of the firm’s Falcon 9 heavy lifter, known as Falcon 9 v1.1. The payload was a Canadian communications and weather satellite called CASSIOPE. But for aficionados the real payoff was the test of the idea of recovering the rocket’s first stage for reuse. This involved arranging for some fuel to be left in its tanks after separation, relighting its engines when that had happened, and then manoeuvring it independently so that it came down in a place from where it could easily be recovered.
Things did not go entirely according to plan. (Mr Musk had said in advance that he thought there was about a 90% chance they would not.) The first re-ignition was successful and some manoeuvres were performed. The second re-ignition, though, put the rocket into a spin and this starved the engine of fuel, causing the thing to crash. Mr Musk, nevertheless, was chipper. By combining this result with those of tests on Grasshopper, a rocket which sports odd-looking metal struts designed to let it land back on its launch pad after take-off, he thinks he has the makings of a fully reusable system that might fly as early as next year. That, he believes, would halve the already-low cost of his launches.
Orbital’s achievement on the 29th was more prosaic than SpaceX’s, but no less significant. One of its Cygnus capsules, with hundreds of kilograms of supplies on board, successfully docked with the ISS. That means SpaceX now has competition in the market to supply the station. As it happened, the date was an unintentional coincidence with the SpaceX launch. The Cygnus had been in orbit since September 18th, but a previous attempt to dock had had to be aborted. This time things went smoothly, leaving Orbital well placed to begin fulfilling its own cargo-resupply contract, worth $1.9 billion.

From the print edition: Science and technology

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