SpaceX Just Put The Coolest Garden Gnome Ever In Its Front Yard

SpaceX has certainly pulled off some successful feats lately. In the past few months, the private aerospace company made its second successful landing on solid ground and its third successful landing at sea with their Falcon 9 rocket. In so doing, they demonstrated that they have achieved the long sought-after dream of reusable rocket technology.

And to celebrate these feats, SpaceX has placed a particularly special first stage on display outside the company headquarters in Hawthorne, California. This particular rocket stage made history about eight months ago (on Dec. 21st, 2015), when it became the first-ever first stage to be recovered in the entire history of spaceflight.

For the sake of this mission, which was the 20th flight conducted by SpaceX using this class of rocket, the Falcon 9 was tasked with delivering 11 Orbcomm-OG2 communications satellites into orbit. After separating, the first stage descended to Earth and became the first rocket stage ever to make a soft landing and recovery.

The top of the Falcon-9 lower stage. Image credit: KC Grim
The top of the Falcon-9 lower stage. Credit: KC Grim

Prior to this flight, SpaceX’s had made two attempts at a vertical landing and booster recovery, both of which ended in failure. The first attempt, which took place in January of 2015, ended when the rocket came close to a successful landing aboard the company’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), but then fell over and exploded.

An investigation determined that failure was due to the rocket’s steering fins running out of hydraulic fluid. The second failed attempt, which took place in April of last year, ended when the rocket stage was mere seconds away from landing on ASDS, but once again fell over and exploded. This time around, the culprit was a failure in one of the rocket stage’s engine throttle valves.

On the third attempt, which took place on Dec. 21st, the Falcon 9 first stage landed a mere ten minutes after launching from Earth. After its descent, it successfully touched down in an upright position on SpaceX’s Landing Zone (LZ-1) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The success of this recovery was a major milestone for the company, and a breakthrough in the history of space exploration and technology. Little wonder then why the company is choosing to honor it by placing it on display at the Hawthorn facility, where their rocket manufacturing plant is located.

The first stage of the recovered Falcon 9, showing its landing struts deployed. Credit: SpaceX
The first stage of the recovered Falcon 9, showing its landing struts deployed. Credit: KC Grim

It all happened this past weekend, where work crews spent Saturday and Sunday standing the 50 meter (165 foot) Falcon 9 stage up on its landing skids. Prior to it being transported to their headquarters in Hawthorne, the rocket’s first stage was being kept in a horizontal position at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and then at a location a few blocks away from the HQ.

Getting it to stand again was no easy task, and required two days and two cranes! The rocket also underwent some “aesthetic renewal” before being erected, which included a cleaning in order to remove all the soot it had accumulated on re-entry. Its logos were also repainted, and most of its engines were replaced by spent versions.

Since this first recovery, SpaceX has managed to conduct five more successful recoveries, one on land and four on its ASDS. They are moving ahead with the first launch of their Falcon Heavy  – Demo Flight 1, which is scheduled to take place by the end of 2016 – which will be the heaviest rocket to be launched from the US since the retirement of the venerable Saturn V.

Yes, the little company Elon Musk started with the dream of one-day colonizing Mars has certainly achieved some milestones. And between the creation of this display, and the Dragon capsule they have on display inside their Hawthorn headquarters, the company is clearly committed to immortalizing them.

And be sure to enjoy this video of the Falcon 9 making its first successful landing, courtesy of SpaceX:

Further Reading: Collect Space

A big thanks to KC Grim for capturing some images of the rocket for Universe Today. Check out his Instagram @citizenkace.

The Relaunch Is On Like Donkey Kong

The Falcon9 main stage landing on its drone ship. Image: SpaceX / Public Domain Image

The age of full-blown reusable rockets is coming another step closer. SpaceX, the private company owned by PayPal founder Elon Musk, has always strove toward reusable rockets. So far, they’ve successfully landed and recovered rockets, but they haven’t actually reused one yet.

In a recent tweet, Musk said he hopes to re-launch all four of his landed rockets this Fall. Initially, he had hoped for a June re-launch, but rocketry and space travel being what it is, a delay is understandable. Still, that’s a seven month turn-around, which seems rather lengthy. SpaceX hopes that eventually it will only take a few weeks reuse a rocket.

SpaceX's four rockets in the hangar. Image: SpaceX
SpaceX’s four rockets in the hangar. Image: SpaceX

If successful, this will really change the nature of space travel/exploration/colonisation. The cost of putting payloads into orbit will be lowered dramatically. Who knows? Maybe the lower cost will trickle down to us consumers somehow.

It’s been reported that the first reuse flights will likely be Low Earth Orbit (LEO) flights. LEO’s have less complicated flight profiles, so this makes sense. There’s no official word on payloads for these flights yet, though companies like SES and Iridium are probably keenly interested.

It seems like SpaceX is always in the news lately. The pending re-launch of the Falcon 9 is almost overshadowed by other news from SpaceX: the launching of the Falcon Heavy. The Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket, and its first launch is scheduled for December 2016.

An artist's drawing of the Falcon Heavy. Credit: SpaceX
An artist’s drawing of the Falcon Heavy. Credit: SpaceX

Spectacular Imagery Showcases SpaceX Thaicom Blastoff as Sea Landed Booster Sails Back to Port: Photo/Video Gallery

Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying Thaicom-8 communications satellite to orbit on May 27, 2016 at 5:39 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Julian Leek
Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying Thaicom-8 communications satellite to orbit on May 27, 2016 at 5:39 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Julian Leek

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – Spectacular imagery showcasing SpaceX’s Thaicom blastoff on May 27 keeps rolling in as the firms newest sea landed booster sails merrily along back to its home port atop a ‘droneship’ landing platform.

Formally known as an Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) the small flat platform is eclectically named “Of Course I Still Love You” or “OCISLY” by SpaceX Founder and CEO Elon Musk and is expected back at Port Canaveral this week.

Check out this expanding launch gallery of up close photos and videos captured by local space photojournalist colleagues and myself of Friday afternoons stunning SpaceX Falcon 9 liftoff.

The imagery shows Falcon roaring to life with 1.5 million pounds of thrust from the first stage Merlin 1 D engines and propelling a 7000 pound (3,100 kilograms) commercial Thai communications satellite to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO).

The recently upgraded Falcon 9 launched into sky blue sunshine state skies at 5:39 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, accelerating to orbital velocity and arcing eastward over the Atlantic Ocean towards the African continent and beyond.

Relive the launch via these exciting videos recorded around the pad 40 perimeter affording a “You Are There” perspective!

They show up close and wide angle views and audio recording the building crescendo of the nine mighty Merlin 1 D engines.

Video caption: Compilation of videos of SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of Thaicom 8 on 5/27/2016 from Pad 40 on CCAFS, FL as seen from multiple cameras ringing pad and media viewing site on AF base. Credit: Jeff Seibert

Watch from the ground level weeds and a zoomed in view of the umbilicals breaking away at the moment of liftoff.

Video caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 at 5:39 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, as seen in this up close video from Mobius remote camera positioned at pad. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

After the first and second stages separated as planned at about 2 minutes and 39 seconds after liftoff, the nosecone was deployed, separating into two halves at about T plus 3 minutes and 37 seconds.

Finally a pair of second stage firings delivered Thaicom-8 to orbit.

Onboard cameras captured all the exciting space action in real time.

When the Thai satellite was successfully deployed at T plus 31 minutes and 56 seconds exhuberant cheers instantly erupted from SpaceX mission control – as seen worldwide on the live webcast.

“Satellite deployed to 91,000 km apogee,” tweeted SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk.

Video caption: SpaceX – “Falcon In” “Falcon Out” – 05-27-2016 – Thaicom 8. The brand new SpaceX Falcon 9 for next launch comes thru main gate Cape Canaveral, just a few hours before Thaicom 8 launched and landed. Awesome ! Credit: USLaunchReport

Both stages of the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 are fueled by liquid oxygen and RP-1 kerosene which burn in the Merlin engines.

Less than nine minutes after the crackling thunder and billowing plume of smoke and fire sent the Falcon 9 and Thaicom 8 telecommunications satellite skyward, the first stage booster successfully soft landed on a platform at sea.

Liftoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 with Thaicom-8 on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: John Kraus
Liftoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 with Thaicom-8 on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: John Kraus

Having survived the utterly harsh and unforgiving rigors of demanding launch environments and a daring high velocity reentry, SpaceX engineers meticulously targeted the tiny ocean going ASDS vessel.

The diminutive ocean landing platform measures only about 170 ft × 300 ft (52 m × 91 m).

“Of Course I Still Love You” is named after a starship from a novel written by Iain M. Banks.

OCISLY was stationed approximately 420 miles (680 kilometers) off shore and east of Cape Canaveral, Florida surrounded by the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.

Because the launch was target Thaicom-8 to GTO, the first stage was traveling at some 6000 kph at the time of separation from the second stage.

Thus the booster was subject to extreme velocities and re-entry heating and a successful landing would be extremely difficult – but not impossible.

Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying Thaicom-8 communications satellite to orbit on May 27, 2016 at 5:39 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Julian Leek
Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying Thaicom-8 communications satellite to orbit on May 27, 2016 at 5:39 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Julian Leek

Just 3 weeks ago SpaceX accomplished the same sea landing feat from the same type trajectory following the launch of the Japanese JCSAT-14 on May 6.

The May 6 landing was the first fully successful sea landing from a GTO launch, brilliantly accomplished by SpaceX engineers.

With a total of 4 recovered boosters, SpaceX is laying the path to rocket reusability and Musk’s dream of slashing launch costs – by 30% initially and much much more down the road.

Thaicom-8 was built by aerospace competitor Orbital ATK, based in Dulles, VA. It will support Thailand’s growing broadcast industry and will provide broadcast and data services to customers in South Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa.

Thaicom-8 is the fifth operational satellite for Thaicom.

It now enters a 30-day testing phase, says Orbital ATK.

Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying Thaicom-8 to orbit on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Julian Leek
Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying Thaicom-8 to orbit on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Julian Leek

The Falcon 9 launch is the 5th this year for SpaceX.

Watch for Ken’s continuing on site reports direct from Cape Canaveral and the SpaceX launch pad.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Liftoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 with Thaicom-8 on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: John Kraus
Liftoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 with Thaicom-8 on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: John Kraus
SpaceX Falcon 9 awaits launch to deliver Thaicom-8 communications satellite to orbit on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Julian Leek
SpaceX Falcon 9 awaits launch to deliver Thaicom-8 communications satellite to orbit on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Julian Leek
Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. 1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 aloft with Thaicom-8 communications satellite after afternoon liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on May 27, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 aloft with Thaicom-8 communications satellite after afternoon liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on May 27, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 streaks to orbit after launch on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 streaks to orbit after launch on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Prelaunch view of SpaceX Falcon 9 awaiting launch on May 27, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Lane Hermann
Prelaunch view of SpaceX Falcon 9 awaiting launch on May 27, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Lane Hermann
Streak shot of SpaceX Falcon 9 launching JCSAT-14 from 1st fully successful droneship landing on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: John Kraus
Streak shot of SpaceX Falcon 9 launching JCSAT-14 from 1st fully successful droneship landing from GTO on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: John Kraus
Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. 1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. 1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
 SpaceX Falcon 9 of Thaicom 8 on May 27, 2016 from Melbourne, FL.  Credit: Melissa Bayles

SpaceX Falcon 9 of Thaicom 8 on May 27, 2016 from Melbourne, FL. Credit: Melissa Bayles
 SpaceX Falcon 9 of Thaicom 8 on May 27, 2016 from Melbourne, FL.  Credit: Melissa Bayles

SpaceX Falcon 9 of Thaicom 8 on May 27, 2016 from Melbourne, FL. Credit: Melissa Bayles

SpaceX Achieves Historic Landing!

In their drive to achieve the goal of reusable rockets, SpaceX has spent the past few years running their Falcon 9 rocket through the most rigorous of tests. And while they have achieved a soft landing once before, SpaceX has been unable to safely land their rockets at sea, despite several attempts. This has been an important step in the development process, as it would mean that the Falcon 9 can be landed under the most difficult of conditions.

But earlier today, SpaceX finally reached that milestone as their CRS-08 mission, which was launched from Cape Canaveral at 4:43 pm (ET), made it back to Earth in one piece. After sending its payload of a Dragon Capsule to rendezvous with the International Space Station, the first-stage rocket successfully made a soft landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. This one achievement brings SpaceX one step closer to fulfilling the goal Musk founded the company upon, which is achieving cost-effective, commercial spaceflight.

Continue reading “SpaceX Achieves Historic Landing!”

SpaceX Test Fires Recovered Falcon 9 Booster in Major Step To Reusable Rockets

Recovered Falcon 9 first stage standing on LZ-1 at Cape Canaveral after intact landing on Dec. 21, 2015. Credit: SpaceX
Recovered Falcon 9 first stage standing on LZ-1 at Cape Canaveral after intact landing on Dec. 21, 2015. Credit: SpaceX

In a major advance towards the dream of rocket reusability, SpaceX successfully test fired the first stage engines of the Falcon 9 booster they successfully recovered last month – following its launch to the edge of space and back that ended with a history making upright landing at Cape Canaveral.

The re-firing of the engines from history’s first recovered rocket took place Friday evening, Jan. 15. Continue reading “SpaceX Test Fires Recovered Falcon 9 Booster in Major Step To Reusable Rockets”

Guest Post: Spaceflight is on the Verge of a Revolution, but don’t Count your Rockets Before they Land

Editor’s note: This guest post was written by Lukas Davia & Marijn Achternaam.

Typing “reusable rockets” into a search engine, you can’t help but be drawn to the allure of SpaceX-related links which fill the screen. In fact, the corporate brainchild of Elon Musk dominates the first few pages of results near-exclusively. The reason for this is understandable: with the death of the Space Shuttle and lack of clear planning for the future by most old players in the spaceflight field, SpaceX’s straightforward, near term plan and previous flight tests make them everyone’s favorite to drastically reduce cost to orbit with rockets which return home – ready to be reused.

And with the upcoming launch of SpaceX’s 14th Falcon 9 rocket on January 6 carrying Dragon to the ISS, the potential for true rocket reusability is certainly within reach for the first time ever in the near 90 years since Goddard launched the world’s first liquid fueled rocket from Massachusetts in 1926. Yet, now is a more important time than ever to temper our wild expectations for the possibility of rockets which fly themselves back to the launch pad. While a rocketry revolution may be among us, it is an iterative, multi-step process that transcends any single mission — and we shouldn’t expect to see regular airline-like reuse and large cost drops anytime soon.

It should be noted that Elon Musk, for all his amazing accomplishments, has never placed a hard and fast timeline on when cheap and accessible rocketry would be available, let alone a solid price. Why? Simply because we are entering territory that remains uncharted.

The only launch vehicle in history that has ever been re-flown several times after achieving orbit was the Space Shuttle. Despite reusing by far the most expensive part of any rocket — the engines and associated systems — the Shuttle cost at least $450 million to launch according to NASA, with a relatively small payload of 24 metric tons to Low Earth Orbit, or almost $19,000 per kilogram. Including development costs, summed and divided up per flight, the price to launch can average as high as $1.5 billion, or thrice NASA’s stated amount. What was supposed to drastically reduce the cost per kilogram of lifting cargo to orbit ended up being one of the most expensive launch vehicles in human history. Why did it become so expensive?

The conception of the Space Shuttle was a result of a marriage between NASA, the Air Force, and other partners. Each wanted their own design specifications, which ended up producing a wieldy vehicle with no well-defined purpose, and it became the “catch all” of the space industry. Mainly, it was that the amount of maintenance required after every mission was greatly underestimated by NASA. After each flight, the entire vehicle had to be essentially rebuilt: tiles replaced, engines inspected, boosters refurbished. In particular, the trio of RS-25 main engines had to be taken apart and checked for every possible defect that could cause a failure, and when things broke, there wasn’t a healthy supply-line that could replace them easily, causing the cost of spare parts to skyrocket, and maintaining a workforce ready and able to refurbish the Shuttle quickly became a money-sink that NASA was never able to recover.

SpaceX isn’t NASA though. They’ve introduced a more agile, responsive development approach to their products which has been overwhelmingly successful. They also have years of prior projects (from multiple sources) to learn from that NASA didn’t. However, these aren’t problems that can be simply waved away. Rather, they are fundamental issues that need addressing: there is no escaping the confines of physics.

A common theme of Musk’s statements is the audacious aspiration to revolutionize the “one use and throw it away” model that has dominated the rocket industry since the beginning, morphing it into something more closely related to a service-based airline model. This is a big task, even by Iron Man’s standards.

Reusable rockets could well become the norm, but when? Image Credit: SpaceX.
Reusable rockets could well become the norm, but when? Image Credit: SpaceX.

Many fans show an under appreciation of the barriers to entry. In fact, in a recent survey conducted on the SpaceX fan community at Reddit.com, when asked to place an educated guess on the price of a Falcon 9 rocket launch in 5 years time, a significant portion of the nearly 600 respondents selected a value beneath $20,000,000. Some even selected prices below $10,000,000. Although COO of SpaceX, Gwynne Shotwell has mentioned in passing that reusable Falcon 9 launches could eventually command a $5-7 million price tag, this is likely far in the future, far past merely the dawn of reusable rockets. For some perspective, five years ago in 2010, SpaceX launched two Falcon 9 rockets. Last year, they launched six, and suddenly, by 2020, the cost of a standard Falcon 9 launch will be three times as cheap? Where has this extra acceleration in development come from? Possibly it comes from the minds of some slightly too-optimistic fans.

In fact, something even as basic as long-term engine maintenance is still relatively unknown. Previously, SpaceX has clarified that each engine has a life of approximately 40 firings, and a casual observer would assume this results in an engine that can be used on 40 missions. However, with three engine test fires prior to each launch, the launch itself, and the three burns required to complete the reentry and re-landing process, the center engine is in fact required to fire 7 times to complete a mission, and with nine engines on every lower stage – even with most only firing a few times, that results in quite a number of parts that can break down after every flight. Checking for these failures and repairing them could become a lot more costly and time consuming than one might hope.

For example, with a diameter of 3.66m, and a height of approximately 42 meters, there is nearly 500 square meters of first stage surface that has been exposed on one side to the frigid temperatures of liquid oxygen and chilled kerosene, and on the other, various temperatures from reentry into the soupy lower atmosphere. In fact, even the ice buildup on the outer skin of the vehicle alone is significant enough to substantially alter the vehicle’s mass! Within that large area, tensile, thermodynamic, and pressure-related fatigue has the potential to accumulate. Striations could nucleate and form hairline cracks. This is a hazard that could lead to a critical failure on an operational mission, and such an event could permanently ingrain an association between the nascent reusable rocket and instability in the minds of satellite operators and the insurance industry. And although Falcon 9 could be considered over-engineered, it is unlikely SpaceX will play rocket roulette.

Although the rocket’s chief engineer estimated a coin toss’s probability of success, upon the hopeful propulsive landing of CRS-5 on the recently christened “autonomous drone landing ship,” the empty first stage will likely be shipped back to SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California headquarters and inspected with various methods of destructive and non-destructive analysis to quantify how the rigors of accelerating to a velocity of nearly 2 kilometers per second in less than three minutes and then decelerating enough, reentering through the atmosphere, to land in close proximity to sea and salt, affect the vehicle.

Another example of a potential refurbishment cost lies in SpaceX’s fuel of choice, kerosene. It burns relatively dirty, as evidenced by the translucent pillar of brown-black soot that Falcon 9 ascends on, a throwback to the days of early aircraft. This leads to an effect predominantly associated with kerolox engines known as “coking” – where incompletely combusted soot adheres to the near-molten engine and nozzle, reducing its ability to radiate away heat. Clean it off, you say? Congratulations, you’ve just introduced refurbishment into the equation, something that SpaceX is striving to avoid.

It’s not just rockets that are expensive. There are  other costs too… Image Credit: SpaceX.
It’s not just rockets that are expensive. There are other costs too… Image Credit: SpaceX.

Even ignoring the vehicle itself, launches and the chemicals needed are expensive! There’s the exorbitantly-priced helium which is required to keep the tanks pressurized, and the pyrophoric TEA-TEB ignition fluid used to begin the explosive marriage between the RP-1 & LOX. It’s not just chemicals either. There’s ground launch operation costs too, ranging from employee wages, to the dull process of permit applications, to the slightly more interesting ablative paint that coats the Transporter-Erector structure which holds Falcon 9 vertical, to transportation and relocation costs. In all likelihood, the current capital expenses of a single launch alone, ignoring the obvious value of the rocket itself, total in the region of $3 million plus.

Fundamentally, we must decouple re-landing, refurbishment, reusability, and financially viable and rapid reuse from each other. It can be a difficult concept to grasp that all four are distinct, and the success of one does not imply the next step is guaranteed. Because of this, question marks still remain over the cost, time, and complexity of the final steps necessary for SpaceX to complete its reusable rocket master plan. For example: re-landing a rocket does not necessarily make refurbishment nonexistent. This is the take home story of the Space Shuttle.

A landing alone doesn’t revolutionize rocketry; rather, we may only realize the revolution of refining rocketry into an airline-like model has occurred well only by looking back in the rear view mirror.

We live in hope that SpaceX achieves what it originally set out to do nearly 13 years ago. SpaceX has come far, far closer than anyone else to this goal, but as Musk himself has said, “Rockets are hard”. Good luck to the team at SpaceX for their upcoming CRS-5 launch and landing attempt, it’s the beginning of something far bigger.

Written by Lukas Davia & Marijn Achternaam

Bios: When not juggling being a software engineering student & full time web developer in New Zealand, Lukas Davia is a self professed SpaceX-addict, and can be found contributing to Reddit community /r/SpaceX, adding to his website SpaceXStats.com, and creating infographics. Believe it or not he does find time to go outside and hike in his spare time too!

Marijn Achternaam is a Dutch student, self proclaimed armchair engineer and spaceflight fanatic who can frequently be found contributing to the /r/space and /r/SpaceX Reddit communities.

SpaceX Makes Strides Towards 1st Stage Falcon Rocket Recovery during Space Station Launch

Blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 18, 2014. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
Story updated[/caption]

The powerful SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that launched successfully on a cargo delivery run for NASA bound for the Space Station on Friday, April 18, from Cape Canaveral, Fla, also had a key secondary objective for the company aimed at experimenting with eventually recovering the rockets first stage via the use of landing legs and leading to the boosters refurbishment and reuse further down the road.

Marking a first of its kind test, this 20 story tall commercial Falcon 9 rocket was equipped with a quartet of landing legs to test controlled soft landing techniques first in the ocean and then back on solid ground at some later date this year or next – by reigniting the 1st stage engines for a guided touchdown.

The 12 foot diameter Falcon 9 rocket would sprout the legs just prior to water impact for the controlled soft landing in the Atlantic Ocean, guided by SpaceX engineers.

'Threading the needle', the Falcon 9/Dragon vehicle passes through the catenary lightning wires as it roars from the pad on the CRS-3 mission.  Credit: nasatech.net
‘Threading the needle’, the Falcon 9/Dragon vehicle passes through the catenary lightning wires as it roars from the pad on the CRS-3 mission. Credit: nasatech.net

Prior to the launch SpaceX managers were careful not to raise expectations.

“The entire recovery of the first stage is completely experimental,” said Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president of mission assurance. “It has nothing to do with the primary mission.”

He estimated the odds of successfully retrieving an intact booster at merely 30 or 40 percent.

Following Friday’s blastoff, SpaceX reported they made significant strides towards that goal of a 1st stage recovery.

1st stage of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket equipped with landing legs and now scheduled for launch to the International Space Station on March 16, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk
1st stage of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket equipped with landing legs which launched to the International Space Station on April 18, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk

SpaceX engineers had preprogrammed the spent first stage to relight several Merlin 1 D engines after completing the boost phase and stage seperation to stabilize it, reduce its roll rate and then gradually lower its altitude back down to the Atlantic Ocean’s surface for a soft landing attempt and later possible recovery by retrieval ships.

All these critical steps seemed to go fairly well in initial reports that are subject to change.

SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk reported at a post launch briefing and later tweeted further updates that the Falcon 9 first stage actually made a good water landing despite rough seas, with waves swelling at least six feet.

“Roll rate close to zero (v important!).”

“Data upload from tracking plane shows landing in Atlantic was good! Several boats enroute through heavy seas,” Musk tweeted.

Furthermore he reported that the 1st stage survived the ocean touchdown.

“Flight computers continued transmitting for 8 seconds after reaching the water. Stopped when booster went horizontal.”

Because of the high waves, the recovery boats had difficulty reaching the booster in the recovery area located some two hundred miles off shore from Cape Canaveral.

Several previous attempts by SpaceX to recover the first stage via parachutes and thrusters were not successful. So SpaceX adopted this new approach with the landing legs and 1st stage Merlin 1 D engines.

Further details will be proved when they become available.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket liftoff on April 18, 2014 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, Fla.  Credit: Julian Leek
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket liftoff on April 18, 2014 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Credit: Julian Leek

The attachment of the 25 foot long 1st stage landing legs to SpaceX’s next-generation Falcon 9 rocket for ocean recovery counts as a major step towards the firm’s future goal of building a fully reusable rocket and dramatically lowering launch costs compared to expendable boosters.

The eventual goal is to accomplish a successful first stage touchdown by the landing legs on solid ground back somewhere near on Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Musk said that SpaceX is still working out the details on finding a suitable landing location with NASA and the US Air Force.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply ship launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 18, 2014.   Credit:  Jeff Seibert/Wired4Space
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply ship launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 18, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/Wired4Space

Extensive work and testing remains to develop and refine the technology before a land landing will be attempted by the company, says Musk.

It will be left to future missions to accomplish a successful first stage touchdown by the landing legs back on solid ground back through a series of ramped up rocket tests at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

“Even though we probably won’t get the stage back, I think we’re really starting to connect the dots of what’s needed,” Musk said at the briefing.

“There are only a few more dots that need to be there to have it all work. I think we’ve got a decent chance of bringing a stage back this year, which would be wonderful.”

Overall Musk was very pleased with the performance of the rocket and the landing leg test.

“I would consider it a success in the sense that we were able to control the boost stage to a zero roll rate, which is previously what has destroyed the stage, an uncontrolled roll, where the on-board nitrogen thrusters weren’t able to control the aerodynamic torque and spun up.”

“This time, with more powerful thrusters and more nitrogen propellant, we were able to null the roll rates.”

“I’m feeling pretty excited,” Musk stated. “This is a happy day. Most important of all is that we did a good job for NASA.”

This extra powerful new version of the Falcon 9 dubbed v1.1 is powered by a cluster of nine of SpaceX’s new Merlin 1D engines that are about 50% more powerful compared to the standard Merlin 1C engines. The nine Merlin 1D engines 1.3 million pounds of thrust at sea level rises to 1.5 million pounds as the rocket climbs to orbit.

Therefore the upgraded Falcon 9 can boost a much heavier cargo load to the ISS, low Earth orbit, geostationary orbit and beyond.

Indeed Dragon is loaded with nearly 5000 pounds of cargo, about double the weight carried previously.

If all goes well, Dragon will reach the ISS early on Easter Sunday morning after a two day orbital chase.

Station crew members Rick Mastracchio and Steven Swanson will grapple the Dragon cargo freighter with the 57 foot long Canadarm2 on Easter Sunday at about 7:14 a.m. and then berth it at the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module.

NASA TV coverage of the Easter Sunday grappling process will begin at 5:45 a.m. with berthing coverage beginning at 9:30 a.m. : http://www.nasa.gov/ntv

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Rising slowly from Pad 40, the fully loaded Dragon and Falcon 9 v1.1 vehicle begin the mission to ISS. Credit: nasatech.net
Rising slowly from Pad 40, the fully loaded Dragon and Falcon 9 v1.1 vehicle begin the mission to ISS. Credit: nasatech.net

SpaceX Unveils Gorgeous Rocket Legs for Space Station Launch on March 16

SpaceX is nearly ready to Rock ‘n’ Roll with their first rocket sporting landing legs and slated to blast off this coming weekend carrying a commercial Dragon cargo freighter bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

Check out the Falcon 9 rockets gorgeous legs unveiled today by SpaceX in an eye popping new photo featured above.

The newly released image shows the private Falcon 9 positioned horizontally inside the Cape Canaveral processing hanger and looking up directly from the bottom of her legs and nine powerful first stage engines.

Following a brief static hotfire test this past weekend of all nine upgraded Merlin 1D engines powering the first stage of SpaceX’s next generation Falcon 9 rocket, the path is clear for Sunday’s (March 16) night time lift off at 4:41 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

This week, engineers working inside the hanger are loading the Dragon vessel with the final cargo items bound for the station that are time sensitive.

Engineers pack Dragon with cargo, including support for more than 150 science investigations on the ISS. Credit: SpaceX
Engineers pack Dragon with cargo, including support for more than 150 science investigations on the ISS. Credit: SpaceX

Altogether, this unmanned SpaceX CRS-3 mission will deliver over 5000 pounds of science experiments and essential gear, spare parts, crew provisions, food, clothing and supplies to the six person crews living and working aboard the ISS soaring in low Earth orbit under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

An upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon cargo capsule bound for the ISS is slated to launch on March 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL.   File photo.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
An upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon cargo capsule bound for the ISS is slated to launch on March 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. File photo. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Dragon is carrying research cargo and equipment for over 150 science investigations, including 100 protein crystal experiments that will allow scientists to observe the growth of crystals in zero-G.

Conducted in the absence of gravity, these space experiments will help Earth bound researchers to potentially learn how to grow crystals of much larger sizes compared to here on Earth and afford scientists new insights into designing and developing new drugs and pesticides.

A batch of new student science experiments are also packed aboard and others will be returned at the end of the mission.

The attachment of landing legs to the first stage of SpaceX’s next-generation Falcon 9 rocket counts as a major first step towards the firm’s future goal of building a fully reusable rocket.

For this Falcon 9 flight, the rocket will sprout legs for a controlled soft landing in the Atlantic Ocean guided by SpaceX engineers.

“F9 will continue to land in the ocean until we prove precision control from hypersonic thru subsonic regimes,” says SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk.

It will be left to a future mission to accomplish a successful first stage touchdown by the landing legs on solid ground back at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Much development works remains before a land landing will be attempted.

The Falcon will roll out from the hanger to Launch Pad 40 on Saturday, March 15.

Falcon 9 and Dragon static fire test on March 8, 2014. Credit: SpaceX
Falcon 9 and Dragon static fire test on March 8, 2014. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is under contract to NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the ISS during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights over the next few years at a cost of about $1.6 Billion.

To date SpaceX has completed two operational cargo resupply missions and a test flight to the station. The last flight dubbed CRS-2 blasted off a year ago on March 1, 2013 atop the initial version of the Falcon 9 rocket.

All four landing legs now mounted on Falcon 9 rocket being processed inside hanger at Cape Canaveral, FL for Mar 16 launch.  Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk
All four landing legs now mounted on Falcon 9 rocket being processed inside hanger at Cape Canaveral, FL for Mar 16 launch. Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk

Following the scheduled March 16 launch and a series of orbit raising and course corrections over the next two days, Dragon will rendezvous and dock at the Earth facing port on the station’s Harmony module on March 18.

The Harmony port was recently vacated by the Orbital Sciences built Cygnus cargo spacecraft to make way for Dragon.

This extra powerful new version of the Falcon 9 dubbed v1.1 is powered by a cluster of nine of SpaceX’s new Merlin 1D engines that are about 50% more powerful compared to the standard Merlin 1C engines. The nine Merlin 1D engines 1.3 million pounds of thrust at sea level rises to 1.5 million pounds as the rocket climbs to orbit.

Therefore the upgraded Falcon 9 can boost a much heavier cargo load to the ISS, low Earth orbit, geostationary orbit and beyond.

Indeed Dragon is loaded with about double the cargo weight carried previously.

The Merlin 1D engines are arrayed in an octaweb layout for improved efficiency.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters including Universe Today on Sunday (Nov. 24) in Cocoa Beach, FL prior to planned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff with SES-8 communications satellite set for Nov. 25, 2013 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters including Universe Today in Cocoa Beach, FL prior to planned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff with SES-8 communications satellite from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news. Learn more at Ken’s upcoming presentations at the NEAF astro/space convention on April 12/13.

And watch for Ken’s upcoming SpaceX launch coverage at Cape Canaveral & the Kennedy Space Center press site.

Ken Kremer

Next SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Gets Landing Legs for March Blastoff to Space Station – Says Elon Musk

1st stage of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket newly equipped with landing legs and now scheduled for launch to the International Space Station on March 16, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk
Story updated[/caption]

The next commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that’s set to launch in March carrying an unmanned Dragon cargo vessel will also be equipped with a quartet of landing legs in a key test that will one day lead to cheaper, reusable boosters, announced Elon Musk, the company’s founder and CEO.

The attachment of landing legs to the first stage of SpaceX’s new and more powerful, next-generation Falcon 9 rocket counts as a major step towards the firm’s eventual goal of building a fully reusable rocket.

Before attempting the use of landing legs “SpaceX needed to gain more confidence” in the new Falcon 9 rocket, Musk told me in an earlier interview.

Blastoff of the upgraded Falcon 9 on the Dragon CRS-3 flight is currently slated for March 16 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on a resupply mission to bring vital supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) in low Earth orbit for NASA.

“Mounting landing legs (~60 ft span) to Falcon 9 for next month’s Space Station servicing flight,” Musk tweeted, along with the up close photos above and below.

All four landing legs now mounted on Falcon 9 rocket being processed inside hanger at Cape Canaveral, FL for Mar 16 launch.  Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk
All four landing legs now mounted on Falcon 9 rocket being processed inside hanger at Cape Canaveral, FL for March 16 launch. Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk

“SpaceX believes a fully and rapidly reusable rocket is the pivotal breakthrough needed to substantially reduce the cost of space access,” according to the firm’s website.

SpaceX hopes to vastly reduce their already low $54 million launch cost when a reusable version of the Falcon 9 becomes feasible.

Although this Falcon 9 will be sprouting legs, a controlled soft landing in the Atlantic Ocean guided by SpaceX engineers is still planned for this trip.

“However, F9 will continue to land in the ocean until we prove precision control from hypersonic thru subsonic regimes,” Musk quickly added in a follow-up twitter message.

In a prior interview, I asked Elon Musk when a Falcon 9 flyback would be attempted?

“It will be on one of the upcoming missions to follow [the SES-8 launch],” Musk told me.

“What we need to do is gain more confidence on the three sigma dispersion of the mission performance of the rocket related to parameters such as thrust, specific impulse, steering loss and a whole bunch of other parameters that can impact the mission.”

“If all of those parameters combine in a negative way then you can fall short of the mission performance,” Musk explained to Universe Today.

When the upgraded Falcon 9 performed flawlessly for the SES-8 satellite launch on Dec 3, 2013 and the Thaicom-6 launch on Jan. 6, 2014, the path became clear to attempt the use of landing legs on this upcoming CRS-3 launch this March.

Atmospheric reentry engineering data was gathered during those last two Falcon 9 launches to feed into SpaceX’s future launch planning, Musk said.

That new data collected on the booster stage has now enabled the approval for landing leg utilization in this March 16 flight.

SpaceX engineers will continue to develop and refine the technology needed to accomplish a successful touchdown by the landing legs on solid ground back at the Cape in Florida.

Extensive work and testing remains before a land landing will be attempted by the company.

Ocean recovery teams will retrieve the 1st stage and haul it back to port much like the Space Shuttle’s pair of Solid Rocket Boosters.

This will be the second attempt at a water soft landing with the upgraded Falcon 9 booster.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters including Universe Today on Sunday (Nov. 24) in Cocoa Beach, FL prior to planned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff with SES-8 communications satellite set for Nov. 25, 2013 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters including Universe Today in Cocoa Beach, FL prior to December 2013 SpaceX upgraded Falcon 9 rocket blastoff with SES-8 communications satellite from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The two stage Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo carrier are currently in the final stages of processing by SpaceX technicians for the planned March 16 night time liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at 4:41 a.m. that will turn night into day along the Florida Space Coast.

“All four landing legs now mounted on Falcon 9,” Musk tweeted today, Feb. 25.

SpaceX has carried out extensive landing leg and free flight tests of ever increasing complexity and duration with the Grasshopper reusable pathfinding prototype.

SpaceX is under contract to NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000) pounds of cargo to the ISS during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights over the next few years at a cost of about $1.6 Billion.

SpaceX Falcon 9 landing leg. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Falcon 9 landing leg. Credit: SpaceX

To date SpaceX has completed two cargo resupply missions. The last flight dubbed CRS-2 blasted off a year ago on March 1, 2013.

The Falcon 9 and Dragon were privately developed by SpaceX with seed money from NASA in a public-private partnership.

The goal was to restore the cargo up mass capability the US completely lost following the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters in 2011.

SpaceX along with Orbital Sciences Corp are both partnered with NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program.

Orbital Sciences developed the competing Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo spacecraft.

This extra powerful new version of the Falcon 9 dubbed v1.1 is powered by a cluster of nine of SpaceX’s new Merlin 1D engines that are about 50% more powerful compared to the standard Merlin 1C engines. The nine Merlin 1D engines 1.3 million pounds of thrust at sea level rises to 1.5 million pounds as the rocket climbs to orbit.

The Merlin 1 D engines are arrayed in an octaweb layout for improved efficiency.

Next Generation SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Next Generation SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Therefore the upgraded Falcon 9 can boost a much heavier cargo load to the ISS, low Earth orbit, geostationary orbit and beyond.

The next generation Falcon 9 is a monster. It measures 224 feet tall and is 12 feet in diameter. That compares to a 130 foot tall rocket for the original Falcon 9.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news – and upcoming launch coverage at Cape Canaveral & the Kennedy Space Center press site.

Ken Kremer

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Ken Kremer of Universe Today discuss Falcon 9/SES-8 launch by SpaceX Mission Control at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Ken Kremer of Universe Today discuss Falcon 9/SES-8 launch nearby SpaceX Mission Control at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com