SpaceX: Close But No Cigar?

Another picture perfect launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket ferrying supplies to the ISS, this time, with the first ever attempt at recovery of the first stage booster on a barge at sea.  Recovery of the stage for re-use will shave millions of dollars (about 60 million) drastically reducing the cost of access to space by a huge amount.  Elon Musk often likens it to flying.  Imagine the cost to fly from New York to L.A. if you had to throw away the airplane when you got there.  Typically, airlines simply refuel the jet, and make thousands of trips with the airplane, thus reducing the cost of flying such that virtually anyone can afford to fly, as millions do today.

If re-usability can be designed into rockets, the magical $1000/lb barrier can finally be broken because rockets will be able to be reused over and over as airplanes are, and the cost of the rocket can be split up over many missions.   Now we’re likely a long way off from having a rocket with the lifetime of a typical airliner which logs in excess of 50 million miles in a 30 year lifetime, but even if a handful, or perhaps 10 flights per rocket can be achieved, the savings would be phenomenal.

Back to the barge landing, it has been widely reported as a “failure” in the media due to the fiery hard landing and resulting explosion obliterating the rocket and slightly damaging the barge, but taking into consideration that the rocket actually hit the barge is a huge, extremely under-rated achievement by the media.  One has to bear in mind that from 150 miles up, at supersonic velocities, it’s like trying to hit a postage stamp with a dart from across a football field.  Bear in mind, typically rockets get 2-4 percent of their total weight of the rocket (and fuel) that actually makes it into orbit, hence, you don’t have alot of breathing room to add the bits needed to land the rocket (fuel, landing gear, control fins, etc).  So the trick is to use as little fuel and extra bits as possible to do “extra” stuff, like land and recover the rocket.

SpaceX seems to have overcome the obstacle of developing a system to land and recover the rocket, well, almost, hence Musk’s statement “Close but no cigar”, but they’ve clearly demonstrated, by nearly doing it, that it’s obviously entirely possible to do.  Short of a few more tweaks, they seem to be just about there.  Several more launches are scheduled this year, which means several more attempts can be made to get this done, so 2015 is shaping up to be another interesting year in space exploration, largely due to SpaceX, also considering the fact that the Falcon Heavy is slated to fly this summer as well.  In the mean time, Orbital is still licking it’s wounds from the recent explosion in their latest attempt to resupply the ISS, although props to Orbital for sticking in the game, and their quick response to land a new launcher so they can get back in the game late this year, and Boeing is still working on their capsule, which doesn’t even include a launcher, which makes one wonder how SpaceX can build and fly multiple rockets and capsules (Dragon II hasn’t flown yet, but probably will before Boeing), and although NASA had a great test flight with Orion, it’s in a different class, and won’t be seeing human flights for several years to come.

A definite hat’s off to Elon Musk and his band of engineers at SpaceX, and all the amazing work they’ve done with Grasshopper, and the recent ocean landings, including the first barge “failure”, which failed to land, but succeeded in demonstrating the feasibility of it quite well.