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December 23, 2015

SpaceX’s successful rocket landing marks new chapter for space exploration

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Space exploration company SpaceX successfully launched and landed a rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Monday, opening up the possibility of reusable rockets for the first time in history.

Since the beginning of the space age, the spacecraft used by NASA and other national space agencies almost always ended up discarded upon reentry to Earth’s atmosphere. NASA’s Space Shuttle program from 1981-2011 was a reusable spacecraft, but it relied upon disposable rockets to get into orbit.

Now, experts say the success of SpaceX’s rocket landing will make future trips considerably cheaper and more frequent.

Monday’s success underscored the fact that a new age of space exploration has begun, one in which entrepreneurs like SpaceX founder Elon Musk can use their own finances to fund research and create a business out of sub-orbital spaceflight.

“It means NASA can use its limited resources to do what it should do, go over the hill to the next horizon,” said NewsHour Science Correspondent Miles O’Brien.

This could help NASA get to Mars. “They need the funding to do that. They need the focus,” O’Brien said. “They don’t need to be spending a lot of time flying taxis and freighters into low Earth orbit.”

Similar to the Space Race between the United States and the U.S.S.R. to see who could dominate spaceflight in the middle part of the 20th century, competing billionaires all racing towards the same goal of improving spacecraft engineering will help spur scientific discovery.

“Competition is always good. It’s what got us to the moon, after all,” O’Brien said.


Vocab

rocket – a spacecraft, missile or other vehicle that obtains thrust from a rocket engine by expelling their exhaust in the opposite direction at high speed

entrepreneur – a person who starts a business and is willing to risk loss in order to make money

private enterprise – business or industry that is managed by private companies or individuals rather than by the state

sub-orbital spaceflight – spaceflight in which the spacecraft reaches space but does not complete a full orbit of the earth

Warm up questions
  1. Why haven’t humans been back to the moon since 1972?
  2. What are humans hoping to find or learn about through space exploration?
  3. What is the difference between NASA and private companies like SpaceX?
Critical thinking questions
  1. Why was SpaceX’s rocket landing viewed as such a big victory?
  2. Do you think competition between billionaire entrepreneurs like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and SpaceX’s Elon Musk will help take space exploration to the next level?
  3. With the entry of private companies into space travel, what do you think the U.S. government or NASA’s role should be?
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