Never mind SpaceX’s Falcon 9, where’s my Millennium Falcon?

Fredrick Jenet, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and Volker Quetschke, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

Last week, SpaceX held another successful launch of its Falcon 9 rocket. Unfortunately, its landing was not quite as successful as the one in December (it crashed into the ocean).

SpaceX isn’t alone in trying to develop reusable launch vehicles. Other private companies such as Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are also in the race to achieve the dream of consistently landing a rocket after hurtling it into the heavens. Each success – and failure – gets us a little closer.

But how significant is the creation of reusable rockets? And where will we go from here? Are we finally close to the future once promised by the Jetson’s FX-Atmos “flying car” or Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon: a world of personal, space-bound transports that can leave your garage, reach orbit and beyond, and return home in time for dinner?

What else stands in the way?

The final frontier

The “democratization of space exploration,” spurred by NASA encouraging private companies to develop and manage complete launch systems, is igniting a new age of space development and awakening a spirit of exploration and technology innovation that’s been absent from our culture for far too long.

This resurgence of interest is reflected in NASA’s latest call for astronaut applications: 18,300 hopefuls applied for just 14 positions.

And in the private sector, venture capitalists are showing the same enthusiasm by investing US$1.8 billion in space startups in 2015, compared with an average of $193 million a year over the previous 15 years. The increased demand for space access is further spurring on private companies to develop more efficient reusable rocket launch systems.

Today’s space companies aren’t the first to set their sights on such a rocket. This great feat of engineering was originally achieved in 1993, when McDonald Douglass tested the Delta Clipper Experimental (DC-X), a prototype single-stage launch vehicle. NASA later canceled the project.

Now, it seems, the conditions are ripe once again to pick up where the DC-X left off. The private sector has started to take up this challenge, and the race is on to enhance all our lives with cheap space travel.

This future begins with the reusable rocket.

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