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Why is the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket test so important?

Rocket reuse, not only recapture, is essential to the business model that Elon Musk has laid out for SpaceX and the future of commercial space travel.

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The Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket lifts off from launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Sunday, July 17, 2016. The Falcon 9 is headed to the International Space Station with 5,000 pounds of supplies.

John Raoux/AP

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On Thursday at the Rocket Development and Test Facility in McGregor, Texas, Elon Musk's private space launch company, SpaceX successfully test fired a used rocket for the first time, providing important information about how rockets stand up to repeated burns caused by lift off.

Since last December, Space X has successfully landed five of its rockets, both on barges and on land, but had yet to relaunch any of them. Mr. Musk says he's looking forward to the day when launches are commonplace and no longer newsworthy events, however successful recapture of the rockets is only the first step. It is the relaunch part of the equation that is essential to the business model for more affordable space travel.

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Saving money is the driving factor behind rocket relaunch. President and COO of SpaceX Gwynne Shotwell told Tech Times that she hopes reuse will cut cost of a rocket launch, which is typically around $61 million, by as much as a third.

“Getting to the point where they are not only recovering them intact, but reusing them and, here is the key point, reusing them on launches where there is a customer paying for that launch, that is the hard part,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who since 1989 has published the twice-monthly Jonathan's Space Report, which tracks space launches, told The Christian Science Monitor.

McDowell went on to say that the tricky part will be providing safety records and building enough trust so as to convince a companies to not only pay for the launch of a used rocket, but to strap their expensive satellites and other types of payloads to it as well.

This most recent test fire brings SpaceX one step closer to building that trust.

The Falcon 9 rocket used in this week’s test was used previously in May to deliver JCSAT-14 communications satellite into space, although it was successfully recovered it is not expected to return to space again.

However, as with any Musk venture, SpaceX has ambitious plans for the future. Its ultimate goal is to send humans to Mars, but in the short term it is planning for the launch of its triple rocket Falcon Heavy and for the first commercial reuse of another Falcon 9 rocket in a delivery mission to the International Space Station.


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