To those who as kids watched a wide variety of space movies, the most amazing aspect of Jeff Bezos’ successful launch this week of the Blue Origin spaceship and the dozens of successful launches by Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets, is not the launch itself. After all we have been watching successful astronaut launches and recoveries for six decades. What is amazing is the fact that the launch rockets are now being safely returned to earth for re-use instead of becoming space junk as was the practice when NASA was the only game in town.
Sci-Fi movies in the 1950’s mainly dealt with two topics—a variety of monstrous dinosaur-like creatures, (Godzilla, Rodan) who, it was suggested, were formed as a result of man’s tinkering with nuclear science, and space travel. In the case of space travel the movie-makers would use stock footage of the launch of a WWII German V-2 Rocket. When the spacecraft reached the Moon or Mars, the filmmakers would reverse the film of the launch to make it look like the rocket was making a gentle landing on its tail.
In the years after NASA went from success to success with programs such as the moon landing (1969) and the Space Shuttle, the public had generally accepted the fact that launch vehicles, or portions of them, could not be practically recovered and the idea of a rocket landing on its tail was pretty much seen as a quaint 50’s idea by space fans.
That notion didn’t have any effect on Musk and Bezos, who as capitalists saw no sense in writing off a launch rocket after a single use. With their dream of making space travel financially viable, such waste of resources would make commercial use of space prohibitive. Hence, we see the New Shepard rocket (Bezos) and the family of Falcon Rockets (Musk).
Not only do they land under their own power, but they land right on the dime, ready for re-use. They don’t even bother to clean them up after use. Bezos’ Rocket showed visible signs of previous use as it was launched Tuesday.
Whether the cost of space travel will ever be brought down to a point where the average person can participate, seems doubtful, but who knows? What these two billionaires have shown is that even in a science-heavy field like space exploration, thinking outside the box can make what seemed impossible-possible.