Elon Musk thinks SpaceX can make space travel more affordable — assuming he can get a rocket that has been launched into the stratosphere to land on a tiny platform floating in the ocean.
That’s what Musk — the billionaire founder of Tesla Motors (TSLA) and private aerospace company SpaceX — hopes to do Tuesday morning. If the test is successful the company says it could pave the way for more efficient, reusable rockets that would dramatically reduce the cost of space travel.
At about 6:20 a.m. EST tomorrow morning, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will carry its Dragon cargo spacecraft skyward before detaching to allow the payload to continue on its supply mission to the International Space Station. Generally, this is a one-time trip for space rockets, which means a company like SpaceX must pay millions of dollars – $54 million, according to Quartz – for a huge missile that it can only use once.
Space X says that it would make much more sense to treat rockets like commercial airliners, which also cost millions of dollars each to make but are able to “conduct tens of thousands of flights over [a] lifetime.”
“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred,” Musk said on SpaceX’s website.
To pull it off, SpaceX plans to land the Falcon 9 rocket safely on a barge floating in the Atlantic Ocean. At 300 feet by 100 feet, the barge is a small target for the rocket, which is 14 stories tall and will initially be traveling at 1300 meters per second. SpaceX has engineered the rocket to feature retro-propulsion jets to help gradually slow its descent until touchdown on the floating barge.
The rocket will also have small steering fins and landing legs to help reach its target safely. Both the spaceflight and the barge will be unmanned.
Musk tweeted on Monday afternoon that the barge was making its way to its position in the Atlantic Ocean:
Musk’s company says it has already successfully engineered two soft landings in the ocean after previous rocket launches, though the CEO told The New York Times that, in both instances, the rockets fell sideways and exploded after briefly hovering over the water.
SpaceX is aware that a successful rocket-landing tomorrow is unlikely (it puts the odds at about 50-50). But the company hopes to gather data that will help make one of a dozen planned launches over the next year a bull’s eye.
“Given what we know today, we believe it is quite likely that with one of those flights we will not only be able to land a Falcon 9 first stage, but also re-fly,” SpaceX said on its website.
Last summer, Fortune wrote about how SpaceX — which had recently quashed rumors of its own $10 billion valuation — was challenging its rivals in the private space industry with markedly lower prices for its space launch services. Should the company succeed in its goal of reusing expensive rockets, SpaceX would likely enjoy an even greater pricing advantage over some of its rivals.
(You can watch the launch live, via webcast.)