SpaceX's Cosmic Triumph

It's rocket science.

Source: SpaceX/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

It's an image that may one day prove iconic: a shimmering 14-story rocket, in a haze of fire and smoke, touching down gently at Cape Canaveral's Landing Zone 1, just minutes after delivering a payload into space.

The smooth landing led to bouts of delirium at SpaceX, Elon Musk's aerospace startup. And with good reason: The successful voyage and return of a functional Falcon 9 booster was one of the company's most ambitious goals. And its striking success Monday, after three previous failures, suggests the space business may be on the verge of a breakthrough.

For decades, getting anything into space has required a lot of money and a lot of waste. Rockets typically burn up after delivering their payloads and plunk unceremoniously in the ocean, never to be used again. Musk has likened this process to disposing of an airplane after each flight. The future of spacefaring -- both civic and commercial -- depends on lowering the price of those launches. And fully reusable rockets, by Musk's estimate, could reduce expenses by a factor of 100.

That could open up some intriguing business opportunities. As satellites have gotten smaller and cheaper in the past few years, companies have put them to work in businesses ranging from agriculture to insurance to weather forecasting. The Falcon 9 that stuck its landing yesterday had just deposited 11 satellites into orbit for Orbcomm, which uses them in machine-to-machine communications. If getting all that equipment into orbit becomes significantly cheaper, as Musk envisions, it could revolutionize the space economy.

That's still a big "if." Plenty of challenges lie ahead for SpaceX, not least demonstrating that its rocket -- after all the stresses and strains of a launch and landing -- can actually be pressed back into service. Few companies will be willing to use a secondhand rocket to launch their valuable payloads without some reassuring evidence. And plenty of people in the space business are skeptical that it's even possible.

Yet Musk has often disproved skeptics. And SpaceX has exceled at harnessing the power of competition to solve confounding problems. In little more than a decade, the company has upended the aerospace industry, forced its competitors to slash costs, broken an unconscionable contractor monopoly on national-security launches, and prodded some once-moribund peers to try building reusable rockets of their own, after mere decades of talking about it.

It's even sparking a riveting and not-quite-friendly rivalry between Musk and Jeff Bezos of Amazon, whose aerospace startup landed a much smaller suborbital rocket last month. (Bezos noted his adversary's accomplishment, passive-aggressively, on Twitter.) Not long ago, the idea of adversarial billionaires racing to produce better reusable rockets would've seemed outlandish.

In short, the space business, long the domain of placid government contractors, is finally starting to reap the benefits of competition and capitalism. And the possibilities are cosmic.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.