A while back I highlighted SpaceX’s reusable first stage. Last week, they launched with it with the plan to have it do a controlled descent into the waters off Cape Canaveral. I haven’t been able to find detailed reports of how well it worked, other than this snippet from their web site.
Data upload from tracking plane shows first stage landing in Atlantic was good! Flight computers continued transmitting for 8 seconds after reaching the water. Stopped when booster went horizontal. Several boats enroute through heavy seas…
While we’re waiting to get more word on this, the Economist has an interesting article on how this might affect the economics of spaceflight.
EVERYTHING about space flight is superlative. Even relatively modest rockets are hundreds of feet high. The biggest (the Saturn V, which launched astronauts to the Moon) remains the most powerful vehicle ever built. But space flight is superlatively expensive, too. One reason is that, for all their technological sophistication, rockets are one-shot wonders. After they have fired their engines for a few minutes they are left to fall back to Earth, usually splashing ignominiously into the ocean.
Rocket scientists have therefore long dreamed of making something able to fly more than once. Such a reusable machine, they hope, would slash the cost of getting into space. The only one built so far, America’s space shuttle, proved a dangerous and costly disappointment, killing two of its crews and never coming close to the cost savings its designers had intended. But hope springs eternal, and several of America’s privately run “New Space” firms are planning to try again.
The furthest advanced is SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, an internet mogul. On April 18th it is due to launch one of its Falcon 9 rockets on a cargo-carrying trip to the International Space Station (ISS), something it has done twice before. This time, though, the main story is not the ISS mission, but the modifications the firm has made to the rocket itself.
As the article discusses, some caution is called for in light of the Shuttle’s history. Still, if they can make flights cheaper, then many missions that aren’t yet economical might become so.
On the article’s comments about Musk’s Mars ambitions, envisioning one way trips is all the rage these days. Personally, I continue to think this is a terrible idea. It’s easy to contemplate something like this with idealized visions of living on Mars. It’s quite another to live for months and years in a canned environment, unable to return to Earth until (unless?) you’re able to develop enough industry to build a return launch vehicle. People who change their mind sometime over those years may come to feel like they’re in the most remote and bleak prison in history.