A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifted off from a launch pad in Florida, carrying a Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station. A few minutes later, the first stage of the Falcon 9 touched down at a prepared landing pad a few miles of the launch pad. The first event has been a common occurrence for decades. The second was just the fifth and the second on land for the Falcon 9 first stage. Therein is how the economics of space travel is starting to change.

Besides the usual food and other consumables, the Dragon is taking a new docking port and some scientific equipment, including a DNA decoder.

Scientists have been sequencing DNA for many years on Earth. The crew of the International Space Station will study the DNA of organisms for the first time in space, uncovering how the environment changes the genetic code.

The docking port is meant to accommodate a number of spacecraft that ply between Earth and the ISS from a number of countries. In August, two astronauts from the ISS crew will spacewalk to attach the docking port.

The next step for SpaceX’s quest for a reusable rocket will occur when it uses a recovered Falcon 9 first stage in a second flight, an event that will likely occur shortly.

At that point, SpaceX will have a better idea of not only the technical challenges of reusing rockets but the economic ones. The whole point of reusing parts of spacecraft is to avoid the expense of building them for every spaceflight. Reusability can be a fine thing, but unless the process of turning around parts of rockets can be done quickly and cheaply, the benefit can be illusionary. The space shuttle, once the great hope of cheap access to space, proved to take too much time and cost too much to turn around to achieve that goal.

In the meantime, traffic is picking up at the ISS. Two days before the Dragon is due to arrive, a Russian Progress is due to dock at the orbiting space laboratory. The ISS has been doing some great science since it started operations, but it is also providing experience in space traffic control.

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