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Marketplace Morning Report

Landing a rocket is great, but will it save money?

Kimberly Adams Dec 22, 2015
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Last night, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket carrying a payload of Orbcomm communications satellites. It’s SpaceX first return to flight since one of its rockets blew up in June.

But there was another first for SpaceX — the landing. The company successfully brought the first stage of the rocket back to earth, evidence that SpaceX can reclaim its materials — materials that cost millions to construct. With the landing of Falcon 9, SpaceX got an edge on its competitor, Blue Origin, which brought back its own rocket (which did not carry cargo) last month.

Safely landing these rockets can save companies a lot of money, said Carissa Christensen, managing partner at the consulting firm Tauri Group.

“There’s potential to reduce launch costs substantially, maybe as much as 75 percent,” said Christensen.

Those savings could be passed on to the companies hitching rides on those rockets, like those making weather and communications satellites — if it doesn’t cost too much to get the rockets up and running again.

Christensen said expensive refurbishing could cut savings down to just 10 percent. But even that would still save companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin millions of dollars.

NASA learned this lesson the hard way with its space shuttle program, said Ray Sedwick, who teaches aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland.

“The shuttle is sort of a cautionary tale,” he said. “So I hope that [the companies] considered the potential pitfalls with the refurbishment process.”

Sedwick said if these private companies can get the technology right, it could change the commercial space industry.

“That’s why it’s really great that there are two companies that are working on this at the same time.”

With the stiff competition between Blue Origin and SpaceX, a ride to space could get a lot cheaper.

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