As far as space-firsts go, this one isn’t exactly the most glamorous, but it’s pretty important: for the first time ever, a previously-used launch vehicle has sent a previously-used cargo vehicle to dock with the International Space Station. The rocket was a SpaceX Falcon 9, and the cargo vehicle was a SpaceX Dragon capsule.
I suppose you could argue that the Space Shuttles did this first, but not all of the Shuttle Launch System was reused—the orbiters were, of course, and the solid fuel rockets were re-furbished and re-used, but that big orange fuel tank at the center of the stack wasn’t. That’s a pretty significant component of the system, so I think we’ll give the first to the Falcon 9, which is entirely re-used.
Even though most spacecraft and launch vehicles are one-time use items, like, say, sanitary napkins, the history of re-using spacecraft goes back much further than many realize.
The first time NASA experimented with re-using a spacecraft was long before the Space Shuttle, way back in 1966. NASA refurbished the Gemini 2 capsule, which was launched for a short mission in 1965, and re-used it as for a test mission for the Air Force’s experimental (and aborted) Manned Orbital Laboratory project.
As far as re-using launch vehicles, I believe this is the first time NASA has employed a re-usable launch vehicle for an actual mission. NASA takes everything very seriously, and has studied the risks associated with a used rocket, but according to Kirk Shireman, the ISS Program Manager,
“We’re very comfortable that the risk posture on this vehicle is not significantly greater than a new booster. The net result is about equivalent risk.”
Shortly after the Falcon 9 sent the Dragon and its 4861 pounds of cargo off to the ISS, it made a controlled, vertical landing at SpaceX’s landing site, creatively named Landing Zone 1. The rocket will presumably be refurbished once again for further launches.
This is a big deal; the cost of getting things to orbit will definitely be reduced if we don’t need a whole new delivery vehicle every time.