Elon Musk’s SpaceX is about to face one of its biggest tests yet.
On Thursday, for the first time, the private spaceflight company will attempt to reuse a previously flown rocket booster to deliver a satellite to orbit.
This attempt at reusability will mark a key moment for SpaceX in that basically all of its plans for the future — including human trips to Mars and maybe beyond — rely on fast, efficient and affordable launch capabilities.
SpaceX, along with other private spaceflight companies, is trying to drastically lower the cost of access to space in order to open up a new range of possible missions. The launch on Thursday will be the biggest test of this business plan to date.
“This is an especially exciting launch because of its first-of-a-kind nature, but the goal remains the same: to safely and reliably deliver a payload to orbit,” Phil Larson, a former SpaceX employee, said via email.
The Falcon 9 rocket that is expected to launch at 6:27 p.m. ET on Thursday uses the first stage of a rocket that previously flew a payload to orbit. That booster was brought back to Earth after the launch in April 2016, landing on a drone ship at sea.
In total, SpaceX has landed seven rockets back on Earth after sending payloads to orbit.
In the time since that launch and landing, SpaceX has worked to refurbish the rocket, testing it out in Texas at the company’s proving ground.
In the future, this kind of refurbishment shouldn’t take this long. Ideally, the turnaround time between launch and landing should be pretty brief, involving a quick checkout of the booster and refueling before its next launch.
However, the company also experienced a major setback in the months since this rocket landed back on Earth, which delayed its launch schedule.
A different Falcon 9 rocket blew up just before a routine engine test, destroying its satellite payload and badly damaging one of the company’s launch pads in Florida.
On Thursday, we’ll see just how much SpaceX has bounced back.
A huge moment for SpaceX
From the moment SpaceX was founded in 2002, Musk and his team have been working toward this moment.
Instead of effectively throwing away rocket boosters after one use — which is traditionally how it’s done — SpaceX set out to bring those expensive boosters back to Earth and then re-fly them on multiple missions.
Reusing rockets has the potential to greatly reduce the cost of access to space, allowing more companies and people to fly various payloads to orbit and even beyond.
“It’s obviously pretty important for them,” Bill Ostrove, an aerospace and defense industry analyst at Forecast International, said in an interview. “If they’re successful, it proves that they are able to reuse a rocket which is going to significantly lower their cost, which will allow them to be even more competitive than they are now.”
SpaceX’s future hinges on that reusability. Without it, the costs of launching payloads to space will be too high to support its grand vision of making even interplanetary journeys affordable for everyone.
The first part of that process was mastering the technology and engineering needed to bring a rocket stage from an orbital trajectory back to Earth, and now, the company will need to demonstrate that it really can reuse those boosters.
While it’s unclear what the next step is for Falcon 9’s reusability, SpaceX has a packed agenda for its Falcon Heavy rocket, designed to deliver large payloads to orbit for customers.
SpaceX is planning to return three stages of the Falcon Heavy rocket to Earth after launching to space, according to Ostrove, and the company is also banking on reusability for its interplanetary launches in the future.
A turning point for the space industry
The Thursday launch could also mark a huge moment for the private space sector as a whole.
Multiple companies — like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance — are also aiming for some type of reusability in their rockets.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s just see how Thursday’s launch actually turns out.
According to Ostrove, if the launch fails, it wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the world for SpaceX.
“It certainly would be a step back for them, but I don’t know if it necessarily means that they would be finished with that goal,” Ostrove said.
“…I think that Elon Musk remains dedicated to his long term goals and long-term vision, so they would continue working toward that goal.”