After shuttling its Dragon spacecraft to the ISS, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket successfully returned to Earth through a method known as “soft landing.” The occasion marks a big shift in SpaceX’s future as it allows the private company to reuse the rockets in the future, substantially cutting down on costs. The company recently demonstrated this ability during a flight test last week, showing the rocket fly into the air and then swiftly come back down to the ground, all autonomously. SpaceX is hoping the technology could one day be used for a trip to Mars.
The Falcon 9 rocket that shuttled the Dragon spacecraft didn’t actually return to land, though, instead touching down into the ocean. But it did demonstrate the soft landing ability—and SpaceX wants to again reproduce the achievement by the end of this year. During a press conference on Friday, SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, said he hopes to see a Falcon 9 rocket take off from Cape Canaveral in Florida and return to the same spot.
If SpaceX can successfully use the soft landing method in future missions, the company estimates it can dramatically reduce costs for future flights by as much as 70-percent; flights are currently $60 million per flight. Musk’s ultimate vision is to be able to fly a rocket to space, have it land safely in the same spot, refuel and refurbish it, and then send it back up—all in the same day. Once SpaceX fine tunes the technology, Musk hopes to one day shuttle humans to Mars.
As of now, it would be impossible to shuttle humans to Mars—if not for the difficulties of space travel—due to the planet’s thin atmosphere. NASA successfully landed the Curiosity rover on Mars back in 2012, but the spacecraft only weighed one ton—anything over that would be difficult to slow down to a safe speed for landing. Manned missions could require up to 40 tons worth of materials and gear.
The recent Falcon 9 launch and soft landing came down a few miles away from SpaceX’s intended target. But with more work, Musk hopes to one day have the accuracy of a helicopter. Judging from the F9R video demonstration you see below, that might not be all that far off.