Elon Musk’s space-faring firm has been charting a course for future space exploration. The SpaceX CEO shared an image Friday from one of the company’s biggest initiatives to fund future missions: a Falcon 9 rocket coming in to land on the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship having completed its mission, a move that enables the firm to use the rocket again and save millions in construction costs.
The image, shared to Musk’s personal Twitter page, is a dramatic shot of the rocket flames illuminating the launch pad, cutting an orange glow through the seascape. This drone ship operates in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida, moments after rockets take off from Launchpad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. The company’s other ship, Just Read the Instructions, supports launches from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base in the Pacific Ocean. A third drone ship, A Shortfall of Gravitas, is set to launch in the summer.
The ships help pave the way for more ambitious targets, like a mission to Mars to start a colony. The landings save on the approximately $62 million associated with building a new Falcon 9. The booster that lands on the ship costs around $46.5 million. Efforts to save the $6 million fairing using Mr. Steven, a ship with a giant catching net on the rear, have yet to succeed.
The Falcon 9 has launched numerous satellites into space, but it could start sending humans up relatively soon. SpaceX has designed the Crew Dragon capsule with the goal of sending NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The move will enable NASA to start sending astronauts from American soil, dropping the current arrangement that uses Russian Soyuz rockets from the Baikonur Cosmodrome spaceport in Kazakhstan, estimated to cost $81 million per seat. SpaceX is working alongside Boeing, which is designing the CST-100 Starliner for the same purpose.
SpaceX is scheduled to host an uncrewed Crew Dragon test launch on March 2, before an in-flight abort test scheduled for June. The first crewed test is scheduled for July, meaning the company could send its first humans into space before the end of this year.
The company is currently designing a stainless steel Starship for its future Mars missions. While the above image shows a relatively thin rocket coming into land, future images could show something altogether more gargantuan.