On June 3, SpaceX demonstrated just how seriously it takes the environmental axiom “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” While most of us apply this to plastic containers, jars, and bags, SpaceX did what many scientists previously thought was impossible—it reused a spacecraft.
Dragon is on its way to the International Space Station. Capture by @Space_Station crew set for Monday.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) June 3, 2017
One of the reasons space exploration is so expensive is because spaceflights always resulted in the destruction of most, if not all, of the spacecraft. During the Space Shuttle era, NASA created a reusable Orbiter, as well as rocket boosters, but creating a reusable launch vehicle was thought to be prohibitively difficult. The spacecraft would need to contain the hardware necessary to bring it back to Earth safely, rather than allow it to burn up in the atmosphere. And, of course, developing that technology costs a lot upfront, even if it reduces costs over time. Thus, only one company has been intrepid enough to pursue it. Earlier this year, SpaceX successfully reused its Falcon 9 rocket, marking the first “reflight” of its kind.
“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred. A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.” –Elon Musk
This weekend, the company followed that success by launching a reused Dragon spacecraft. After becoming the first private spacecraft to deliver supplies to the ISS in 2012, this is the eleventh time SpaceX has sent supplies to the ISS. The difference this time is that the company used the same Dragon spacecraft it used on its fourth resupply mission, after pulling it from the Pacific Ocean and revamping it. On Monday morning, NASA astronauts onboard the ISS pulled the refurbished craft in with the station’s robotic arm and operators in Houston remotely docked the craft, officially rendering the mission a success.
Dragon capsule arrives at ISS. Credit: NASA
The cargo aboard the Dragon includes customary supplies, as well as materials to use for experiments designed to further scientists’ understanding of the effects of microgravity on the cardiovascular system and to assess ways of mitigating or even reversing osteoporosis in space. Other research projects linked to the Dragon’s payload include new approaches for solar panels, a study on neutron stars, and the delivery of new instruments that will provide different views of Earth. In July, the Dragon spacecraft will return to Earth full of “3,400 pounds of science,” according to NASA.
Proving that its goal of reusing rockets isn’t a pipedream hasn’t been easy—it’s taken SpaceX nearly 15 years. But given how much these advancements stand to change the game of spaceflight, 15 years seems like a drop in the bucket. Now, the question becomes: what will SpaceX do over the next 15 years?