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SpaceX, Elon Musk and the reusable rocket dream

The unmanned Falcon 9 rocket launched by SpaceX, lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida January 10, 2015.
Mike Brown | Reuters
The unmanned Falcon 9 rocket launched by SpaceX, lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida January 10, 2015.

Last weekend, SpaceX made a historic attempt to land a rocket on a floating ocean platform after a launch from Florida.

"Close but no cigar," was how SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk described it.

SpaceX sent cargo to the International Space Station as part of its contract with NASA, and that part of the mission went exactly as planned. However, Musk also used the launch as the first big test of his dream to create a reusable rocket.

"Rocket made it to drone spaceport ship," he tweeted, "but landed hard."

After examining retrieved pieces of the rocket, Musk said the problem may have stemmed from its running out of hydraulic fluid just before landing: "Upcoming flight already has 50% more hydraulic fluid, so should have plenty of margin for landing attempt next month."

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It's possible the next attempt could be later this month. SpaceX is slated to launch the DSCOVER satellite for NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to measure climate change, and the Air Force has said the date could be as early as Jan. 29. There's also another cargo mission to the space station that could happen in February.

A reusable rocket would dramatically reduce the cost of launches, and no one is pursuing the concept more than Musk, who can count among his other ventures the electric carmaker Tesla Motors.

Another rocket test is one reason this could be a big year for SpaceX. The company's space station missions are being increased to help make up for the loss of missions by Orbital Sciences after a rocket explosion last fall, and the Air Force may finally allow SpaceX to bid for military missions by midyear.

Musk earlier sued the Air Force to get a piece of the $11 billion military and intelligence launch business, which he charged has unfairly gone to United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin consortium. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Air Force now says SpaceX has now "met more than 80 percent of the requirements" to bid on future missions, but final approval is still months away.

On the commercial side, Boeing last week unveiled the first all-electric propulsion satellites, which it built and plans to launch as a pair next month, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

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"Launching two at a time is much more affordable," said Mark Spiwak, president of Boeing Satellite Systems International. Why isn't Boeing contracting with the United Launch Alliance for the rocket? Customers preferred the "newcomer in the space business, SpaceX," said Ken Betaharon of ABS, which is buying one of the satellites.

"The price was right," he said.

One buyer's cost differential

Leonard Wapler of Eutelsat, the buyer of the other satellite, said most launches range from $236 million to nearly $300 million, including insurance. But for this trip, "the launch and the insurance to launch cost $165 million total." Part of that is due to the cheaper rocket.

That kind of savings will get everyone's attention. Prices should decline further if SpaceX learns to successfully retrieve a rocket and reuse it.

"Am super proud of my crew for making huge strikes towards reusability on this mission," Musk tweeted Saturday. "You guys rock!"

—CNBC's Jeff Daniels contributed to this report.