February 26, 2014 – You have to admire Elon Musk and his “musketeers” at SpaceX. They continue to show us a future for spaceflight which fits with our fantasies – reusable rockets that take off from a space port and return to Earth landing softly. Why NASA or other spacefaring nations haven’t gone this route has been surprising. When you consider that the Space Shuttle had reusable rocket engines you would have thought that the upcoming Space Launch System, NASA’s heavy lift rocket, would feature this capability. But no, NASA intends to continue to discard multi-million dollar rockets and then complains about having its budget squeezed.
The latest announcement from the musketeers at SpaceX, following their successful Grasshopper test flights, the March Dragon resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) will feature an attempt at a controlled descent for the first stage Falcon rocket. This time rather than a soft landing on land, it will be one made over the ocean with an attempt at pinpointing the exact location of a soft splashdown. The Falcon first stage will be outfitted with landing gear. The landing gear not only is designed to ensure the Falcon lands vertically, but also provides aerodynamic stability during descent.
In the last Dragon resupply mission to the ISS, although not reported, the SpaceX team tried to control the descent of their first stage Falcon rocket. They were successful to a degree but the lack of stabilizing landing gear caused the stage to roll excessively. In this March mission the addition of the gear should give the SpaceX team a much better test of their hardware and software systems.
The plan for future flights by SpaceX to ISS and elsewhere involves full recovery of first stage Falcon launchers designed to fire retro rockets after stage separation and then perform a series of controlled rocket engine firings to complete a soft touch down at precisely specified locations. This is more than any Grasshopper tests done to date and represents a significant technological leap for space launch systems.
After SpaceX achieves Falcon soft landings, the Dragon capsule is next. The company plans to make Dragon reusable as well outfitting it with controlled descent rockets and landing gear. These innovations will dramatically drive down the cost of launching payloads and human passengers into low-Earth orbit opening up near-Earth space to all kinds of commercial ventures.