A tremendous week of aviation firsts

What a glorious week for aviation. It isn’t hard for me to get excited about things flying through the sky but the past few days were more special than most.

Three different aircraft types took flight for the first time, all on March 31st. The party started in Kiev, Ukraine where Antonov’s An-132D took to the skies. The cargo prop plane features upgraded avionics and new engines from Pratt & Whitney, the same as are used by Bombardier on its Q400 props.

From there the party moved west to Toulouse, France, where Airbus brought the A319neo into operation. This follows the A320neo that entered service 14 months prior. It joins the larger A321neo in testing before production assembly and deliveries commence.

And then festivities moved across the Atlantic Ocean to Charleston, SC where Boeing’s 787-10 had its inaugural sortie. The largest of Boeing’s 787 family is the first Boeing-designed plane making its debut outside the Pacific Northwest.

All three flights are impressive and arguably at least two of them really matter to me in that I’ll likely be on those planes soon enough. But they aren’t what really got me excited about aviation. That honor goes to SpaceX as it made history reusing a rocket to launch a satellite into orbit.

The SpaceX Falcon9 departs the pad, relaunching a first stage into orbit for the first time ever.
The SpaceX Falcon9 departs the pad, relaunching a first stage into orbit for the first time ever.

On Thursday afternoon a Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from pad 39a at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida carrying the SES-10 satellite. Some 30 minutes later the satellite was successfully placed into geostationary transfer orbit, just like hundreds of satellites before it. But this one was different. The launch was the second time the primary stage was used to get to space and the second time that booster was successfully recovered by landing itself on a ship. That a primary stage was reused to place hardware in orbit was a first.

I was on a flight from Houston to New York City during the launch window. I coughed up the $9.95 to get online and watch the launch live. The YouTube stream cut out eventually but I saw through the booster and faring separation until just before the primary stage landed (again) on the barge. I did so using much of the same technology the the SES-10 satellite it was carrying will augment. In some ways I was literally watching the network I was using get upgraded. That was pretty darn cool.

Separation of the first stage in space
Separation of the first stage in space

The primary stage represents as much as 80% of the hardware costs for a rocket launch and historically that was a one-time expense that was lost when the engines ignited. Getting to the point where such hardware can be quickly and easily reused should result in significant savings for launch efforts, though getting there is not without challenges. Making such operations financially viable means getting to near-weekly operations, not the 4-6 week pacing we typically see from launch operators. It will require massive changes in the infrastructure that operates launches, the way satellites are manufactured (to produce them in sufficient quantities quickly enough to feed the rockets) and the economics behind satellite operations. It could very well represent a sea change in the way billions of people communicate on a daily basis.

And even if it is not financially successful as an operation, even if SpaceX turns out to be a multi-billion dollar boondoggle, the company still managed to put a rocket into space, bring it safely back to earth and then repeat the process. Absolutely incredible.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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