After several failed attempts, SpaceX made history when it managed to successfully land its reusable Falcon 9 rocket booster on a (robotic) ship stationed off the Florida coast:
SpaceX has been planning and trying to reuse launch vehicles for quite a few years now. This success is a milestone for reducing the cost of our ventures into space. The road towards efficient space exploration and development is, however, a long one.
Let’s think bigger. Let’s think about large space stations, asteroid mining, colonies on the Moon and Mars. Many of these projects will need an initial investment originating from Earth, probably consisting of pre-manufactured goods. As a species, we have to think long-term.
Returning the boosters back to Earth is a costly business. The immediate costs are the fuel and support operations. The long term cost is that we might deprive ourselves of an important head-start when it comes to building in outer space. This potentially has a much greater impact than the immediate costs. So should we really bother so much about returning our launch vehicles? What if we take the reuse concept one step further?
A booster is essentially a huge fuel tank coupled to a propulsion system. In the coming decades, advancements in robotics will make it increasingly feasible for us to consider asteroid mining or building large extraterrestrial habitats, either in Earth’s orbit or on other planets. Hopefully, we will soon find ways to re-use everything we struggle so hard to escape Earth’s gravity with.
Updated on May 6, 2016: SpaceX did it again^. Congratulations to them!