Next Challenge For SpaceX? Actually Land On Earth

The main problems when it comes to rockets is that you usually scrap a large percentage of them after liftoff. Pieces, or sections called “stages,” fall away as the rocket moves through the atmosphere, making their use extremely expensive. Elon Musk, the chief executive of the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX, likens the waste to throwing away a 747 jet after a single transcontinental flight.

“Reusability is the critical breakthrough needed in rocketry to take things to the next level.”

On Tuesday, SpaceX hopes to change the economics of space travel.

At 6:20 a.m. Eastern time, one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets is scheduled to lift off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on what is otherwise a routine unmanned cargo run to the International Space Station. But this time, the company will attempt to land the first stage of the rocket intact on a barge floating in the Atlantic Ocean. After the booster falls away and the second stage continues pushing the payload to orbit, its engines will reignite to turn it around and guide it to a spot about 200 miles east of Jacksonville, Florida. SpaceX has attempted this before, with slight variation, on three earlier Falcon 9 flights, and on the second and third attempts, the rocket slowed to a hover before splashing into the water.

Mr. Musk commented on those prior attempts.

“We’ve been able to soft-land the rocket booster in the ocean twice so far. Unfortunately, it sort of sat there for several seconds, then tipped over and exploded. It’s quite difficult to reuse at that point.”

SpaceX has built a floating platform, 300 feet long and 170 feet wide, for the rocket stage to land on. A new addition to the rocket is a set of “grid fins” that will fold out after separation to help steer the rocket toward the platform. No people will be aboard the barge during the landing attempt. If everything goes according to plan, SpaceX will reuse the rocket stage on a future SpaceX mission.

Mr. Musk feels 50/50 about this particular attempt to land the rocket stage on the platform. However, SpaceX has a dozen or so more landing attempts planned this yar, and he feels 80 to 90 percent certain that the company will get the procedure dialed in.

Eventually, SpaceX would like to land the first stage back at the launch site. A longer-term goal is to recover and reuse the second stage as well, and SpaceX staff have predicted that a fully reusable rocket could cut launch costs to a hundredth of what they are now.

[Image via SEN]