Private spaceflight firm SpaceX is aiming to build the first fully reusable rocket and spaceship, the company's CEO Elon Musk announced Thursday.
Musk is the millionaire founder of California-based SpaceX. He revealed some of his long- and short-term vision during a webcast speech to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
To have a fully reusable rocket opens up the potential to explore other worlds such as Mars, Musk said. He added that it will also decrease the cost of lofting cargo and humans to space.
Musk is unsure the plans will be successful.
We will see if this works, Musk said. And if it does work, it'll be pretty huge.
It is very challenging to create a fully reusable rocket system, and it has been a goal of many companies for some time.
According to Space.com, the only reusable manned spaceships built to date are NASA's winged space shuttles. Those were retired this year, but they used reusable orbiters and solid rocket boosters for 30 years. However, the system wasn't fully reusable.
Musk has said he hopes SpaceX can send astronauts to Mars within 10 or 20 years. To colonize the Red Planet would and others require transporting thousands of people and millions of tons of cargo through space.
Musk said that is not feasible with what it is costing to make launches today.
Now, we could fail - I'm not saying we are certain of success here - but we are going to try to do it, Mush said. And we have a design that on paper - doing the calculations, doing the simulations - it does work. Now we need to make sure that those simulations and reality agree, because generally when they don't reality wins.
Enter Falcons and Dragons
Musk used SpaceX's Falcon 9 as an example of how the rocket would be designed to bring a Dragon spacecraft to obit before returning to the launch pad. The two stages of the rocket would return to Earth and land at the launch pad after separating in orbit. But get this, they would descend vertically and eventually rest on four legs and be refueled, reintegrated and relaunched.
Musk said a Falcon 9 costs about $50 million to $60 million. However, the cost for fuel and oxygen for a launch is about $200,000.
So obviously if we can reuse the rocket, say a thousand times, then that would make the capital cost of the rocket per launch only about $50,000, Musk said.
See how the rockets would work in the video below.