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SpaceX Successfully Lands Rocket After Launching It Into Space


Last night, a rocket from the commercial spaceflight company SpaceX took off from Florida.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Five, four, three, two, one, zero. We have lift off of the Falcon 9.

SHAPIRO: But for rocket fans, the real excitement came 10 minutes later, when the rocket's massive first stage, more than 15 stories high, came back to Earth.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Stage one has landed.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: LG one, the Falcon has landed. Landing operators, move into procedure.

SHAPIRO: Supporters say the safe return of part of the rocket could change spaceflight forever. Joining me to discuss it is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel.

Hey there.


SHAPIRO: Looking at the video, it does seem amazing that they were able to do this. How hard is it?

BRUMFIEL: Well, SpaceX says it's like firing a pencil over the Empire State Building then having it turn around, come back and land vertically in a shoebox.

SHAPIRO: So no big deal.

BRUMFIEL: No. No big deal at all, right. No, I mean, this rocket, at the time it releases its upper stage which is what's carrying the satellites, it's going over 3,000 miles an hour. And then it has to flip back around, deploy some fins that kind of help it steer through the atmosphere, fall back to Earth and then right before it lands, fire its engine so it can just float down to the ground. I mean, this is pretty amazing.

SHAPIRO: And the reason to do this amazing thing is ultimately because it saves money. That means you can reuse it, right?

BRUMFIEL: Exactly. So the plan over at SpaceX is, these boosters are these big pieces of metal. They've got engines on the bottom that are very expensive. And if you can recycle them, you can really lower the cost. Here's SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.


ELON MUSK: The potential cost reduction of it long-term is probably in excess of a factor of a hundred.

BRUMFIEL: So that's a hundred times cheaper. I should say, we're a long way away from that right now. It all depends on how much work it takes to refurbish these first stages and use them again - and how often they can be used again, for that matter. They're going to take this test stage and really examine it closely to learn more about what needs to be done.

SHAPIRO: Geoff, what are the implications of space travel potentially being a hundred times cheaper in the future?

BRUMFIEL: You know, that really is the big question here. There have been studies that show this could really revolutionize the way we could use space. I mean, you could imagine people firing up commercial satellites for all sorts of stuff - everything from agriculture to, like, looking at how people travel around cities. Elon Musk, you know, he has even bigger ambitions. He hopes this technology could one day be used to colonize Mars.

SHAPIRO: Now, Elon Musk is not the only guy in this business. Just last month, another company, owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, did something similar. And I gather there has been some posturing between these two billionaires on Twitter?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, that's right. So last month, the Bezos company, called Blue Origin, sent up a rocket and it came back down. It looked very similar to this. That rocket was suborbital so it didn't go as high or as fast. It's an easier problem to solve. At the time, Elon Musk was sort of condescending on Twitter - basically said, no big deal. This time, Jeff Bezos came back and said, welcome to the club, implying that he'd been the one who'd done it first. I mean, I think if you're going to have billionaires showing off their big rockets, you know, you might as well have some fun doing it, right?

SHAPIRO: Billionaire burns, from NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel.

Thanks Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.