ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
SpaceX launched a resupply rocket to the International Space Station today. The Falcon 9 rocket is carrying thousands of pounds of cargo and an inflatable space module. What happened after the launch got people really excited.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There's the engine - slowing down right to the (unintelligible).
SHAPIRO: That was the sound earlier at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. NPR science editor Geoff Brumfiel joins us with more. And Geoff, what are we listening to just there?
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Well, so what happened here, Ari, is this rocket took off just like a normal rocket does. It flew up and separated. The second stage went on into orbit, carrying its cargo. But then the first stage turned around. It came back to Earth, and it landed vertically, straight up on an automated robotic barge floating off the coast of Florida. Now, SpaceX has managed to land on the ground before, but they'd never landed at sea. This was a big deal.
SHAPIRO: So this sounds like a step closer to reusable rockets. Why is this such a big deal?
BRUMFIEL: Well, exactly, it is a step closer to reusable rockets. These first stages are, you know, physically the largest parts of the rocket. They carry loads of fuel. They have engines in them, avionics, all sorts of complicated bits and pieces. Right now they just fall into the ocean. They're wasted. If SpaceX can gas them up and fly them again, they could really cut the cost of space travel.
SHAPIRO: Much cheaper - so I said the rocket is carrying an inflatable space module - care to expand on that?
BRUMFIEL: Yeah. It's not what you might think - a bouncy castle or anything like that for the space station.
BRUMFIEL: What it actually is is a rigid module, but it expands when it gets into orbit. It sort of looks like a cylinder when it starts out, and then it's going to turn into something more like a watermelon. NASA has had this kind of technology in the works for years. They abandoned it, and a private company called Bigelow Aerospace picked it up. Bigelow is owned by Robert Bigelow, a billionaire hotelier. He hopes to build space hotels using this technology.
BRUMFIEL: And NASA hopes that maybe astronauts can use it to get to Mars.
SHAPIRO: But this one that went up there just now is not going to be inhabited this go around.
BRUMFIEL: Well, they'll go in and out, but it's about the size of a storage locker, so you won't want to hang around for too long, no.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) That's NPR science editor Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks a lot, Geoff.
BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.