California space-launch entrepreneur Elon Musk said Thursday his company will try to develop an orbital booster system with components capable of flying back to Earth for reuse.
Both of the rocket's stages would return to the launch site and touch down vertically, under rocket power, on landing gear after delivering a spacecraft to orbit, Musk said in a webcast speech to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. A company animation also showed a capsule landing in the same way.
Musk, founder of Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX, said the complexities of the engineering have canceled previous efforts by others.
"I wasn't sure it could be solved, for a while, but then I think just relatively recently — probably in the last 12 months or so — I've come to the conclusion that it can be solved and I think SpaceX is going to try to do it," Musk said.
"Now, we could fail — I'm not saying we are certain of success here — but we are going to try to do it. And we have a design that on paper — doing the calculations, doing the simulations — it does work," he added. "Now we need to make sure that those simulations and reality agree, because generally when they don't reality wins."
SpaceX is currently working to demonstrate that its big Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule can ferry supplies to the international space station now that NASA has retired its space shuttle fleet. The capsule and the Falcon 9's first stage are intended to be reusable after recovery from ocean splashdowns.
A totally reusable rocket would greatly reduce the cost of spaceflight. A conventional rocket is used once: As fuel is used up each stage falls away and burns up on descent through the atmosphere or remains in orbit as junk.
Musk said a Falcon 9 costs about $50 million to $60 million but the cost of fuel and oxygen for a launch is only about $200,000.
"So obviously if we can reuse the rocket, say a thousand times, then that would make the capital cost of the rocket per launch only about $50,000," he said.
Musk did not detail a timeline or cost for development.
"If it does work it'll be pretty huge," he said.
Musk noted that the animation was about a 90 percent accurate depiction of the envisioned rocket.
SpaceX's next mission will be to launch a Dragon capsule to the international space station in January. The company also hopes to eventually qualify its capsule to carry astronauts in addition to cargo.