The hunt for an economic and reusable method for space travel has been a goal of many companies and government agencies from the Space Age's inception.
The only reusable manned spaceships built to date have been NASA's winged space shuttles, which were retired this year. The shuttles used reusable orbiters and solid rocket boosters for 30 years, but the system was not completely reusable.
Each of NASA's 135 shuttle missions also used a disposable 15-story external fuel tank. The tank was jettisoned once a shuttle reached orbit and ultimately burned up during re-entry.
Going to Mars?
Musk has said repeatedly over the years that he founded SpaceX in 2002 with the primary goal of helping humanity establish a lasting presence beyond Earth. Such expansion is necessary to ensure our species' survival, according to Musk, since a catastrophic asteroid strike or other calamity could one day wipe out life on our home planet.
Colonizing Mars — or any other world — would require ferrying thousands of people and millions of tons of cargo through space. That's just not feasible with today's launch costs, Musk has said.
But a fully reusable rocket could change the equation dramatically. Musk illustrated the point by citing SpaceX's Falcon 9, which costs between $50 million to $60 million per launch in its current configuration.
"But the cost of the fuel and oxygen and so forth is only about $200, 000, " Musk said."So obviously, if we can reuse the rocket, say, a thousand times, then that would make the capital cost of the rocket for launch only about $50, 000." [Vote Now! Best Spaceships of All Time]
A heat shield protects the second stage of SpaceX's planned fully reusable rocket during its re-entry through Earth's atmosphere in this still from a SpaceX video. The second stage rocket, like SpaceX's first stage, would make a vertical landing at its launch site.
In its video new animation, SpaceX officials detail how their new launch vehicle, which is based on the Falcon 9 rocket, would work.
After separating in orbit, the two stages of the rocket would come back to Earth and land at the launch pad. The stages would not glide back using wings like the space shuttle; rather, they'd descend vertically, eventually settling down on four legs.
They could then be refueled, reintegrated and relaunched.
Falcon 9 lofted Dragon to Earth orbit for the first time last December, and SpaceX had been planning to launch a demonstration mission docking Dragon to the station in January 2012. SpaceX officials announced late today (Sept. 30) that the firm could be ready to launch the next Dragon test flight by Dec. 19, but that target is still awaiting review by the U.S. Air Force and NASA.
Whenever that demo launches, if all goes well, Dragon's next flight would be an operational cargo mission to the space station, SpaceX officials have said.
This still from a SpaceX video shows the company's Dragon space capsule firing thrusters during a powered descent as it aims for a vertical landing at its launch site. The plan is part of SpaceX's vision for a completely reusable rocket and spacecraft.
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