Rocket Science

SpaceX has now launched the Falcon 9 nine times. The latest happened Friday, April 18, 2014.

The first launch of a Falcon 9 occurred on June 4, 2010. It did not carry a Dragon capsule, but rather what was called a “test article” which simulated the size and weight of such a capsule. It successfully went into orbit. The rocket had one noticeable anomaly on launch: it rotated on its axis as it was leaving the pad. That was potentially catastrophic, but thankfully it reached orbit successfully.

By the time of the next launch on December 8, 2010, the rotation issue had been solved. This second launch was the first test of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. Everything worked flawlessly and the Dragon successfully orbited the earth for three hours before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

The next launch, on May 22, 2012, took a Dragon capsule to the International Space Station, where it docked successfully. After spending a few days hooked to the station, it departed and safely landed in the Pacific Ocean near California.

On October 7, 2012 the first operational flight of the Falcon 9 and its Dragon capsule took cargo to the International Space Station—and returned materials back to the Earth. The Dragon is the only spaceship currently operating that can take cargo both up and back down from the space station. The other cargo ships can only deliver cargo; they can’t bring anything back: they are Orbital Science’s Cygnus (Designed and assembled by an American company using European components for the cargo ship and Russian engines to launch it), the European ATV, the Japanese HTV, and the Russian Progress. After any of Dragon’s competitors are unloaded they are repacked with trash and then sent off to burn up in the atmosphere.

Besides taking cargo ships to the International Space Station, the Falcon 9 also hauls other commercial payloads into orbit. On one such flight which took off from Vandenberg AFB last year, SpaceX made an attempt at recovering the first stage through a powered descent. No one had ever tried such a thing before. They were not entirely successful and the first stage still ended up crashing into the ocean, though slower than normal.

For the latest launch this past Friday, Space X added 4 twenty-five foot long fold-out landing legs to the first stage. Since this was all still experimental, they brought it down over the ocean.

At stage separation, the first stage was traveling at Mach 6, about sixty miles in altitude and sixty miles downrange. The goal was to bring it back to the ground—well, ocean—in one piece. The company explained that they anticipated only a 30 to 40 percent chance of success.

I can’t help but wonder if their prediction was like the sort that Star Trek’s Montgomery Scott “Scotty” would make whenever Captain Kirk asked him how long it would take to get the warp drive back online.
In one of the movies Captain Kirk finally asked, “Do you always double your estimates for how long it will take to repair something?”

“Aye. How else do you think I can maintain my reputation as a miracle worker?”

Not too many hours after the launch, the CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk, tweeted “Data upload from tracking plane shows landing in Atlantic was good! Several boats enroute through heavy seas.” That was followed sixteen minutes later with “Flight computers continued transmitting for 8 seconds after reaching the water. Stopped when booster went horizontal.”

So SpaceX succeeded in doing on this latest launch what they expressed they had only, at most, a forty percent chance of accomplishing—and something that no one else has ever succeeded in, or even tried. And what many people said was impossible.

The now proven ability to recover and reuse the first stage of their rocket will significantly reduce the cost of spaceflight: imagine the difference in the cost of driving if you had to replace your car every time you commuted to work, versus how it is now, where you can keep reusing the thing and only have to refill the gas tank or recharge the batteries. Likewise for a rocket: the cost of fuel is minimal; not having to build a new rocket every time would thus save a bundle. Eventually, SpaceX intends to recover the second stage in the same way, meaning that all the pieces of the rocket would be recovered and reused. No more throwing away fifty million dollar rockets after only one flight.

Sooner than you might expect—assuming SpaceX is ultimately successful—spaceflight will become cheap enough that anyone can do it. Then the dream of being able to vacation in orbit or elsewhere in the solar system will become possible for anyone, not just the incredibly wealthy.

SpaceX has also now created a significant challenge for all their competitors in the launch business,

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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