If reusing rocket stages is the key to making spaceflight routine and affordable, we need a way to recover and reuse these stages quickly after a launch. Elon Musk has just revealed a new way to maybe make this happen: an oceanic, self-stabilizing drone landing pads for the Falcon 9 rockets.
SpaceX is firmly chasing the dream of a reusable rocket; the goal is to apply principles of commercial aviation to space, having a rocket that can fly hundreds of flights in its lifetime like an airplane can. To make this dream a reality, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is not only able to withstand atmospheric reentry, it’s able to return to the launch pad for a vertical landing. We’ve seen some preliminary testing towards this end with the Grasshopper Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing vehicle.
SpaceX has already demonstrated its Falcon 9 can make a soft landing. In April of 2014, the company brought a Falcon 9 first stage in for a soft, vertical landing in the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in history. But then high waves prevented its recovery.
This won’t be a problem with Musk’s latest development, the drone ship landing pad the company intends to use to catch a Falcon 9; the first attempt will be on December 16. Using small landing legs and thrusters to slow its descent, the Falcon 9 will be able to touch down on the auto-stabilizing platform. Not having been dunked in salt water will lower cost and time needed to refurbish the rocket before another launch.
This isn’t the first time engineers have tried to bring a rocket stage back after a launch in a way that would simplify refurbishment. In the 1960s, NASA briefly considered recovering the first stage of the Saturn V rocket by paraglider. One configuration would use this system to deliver it back to land and another would bring it in to a gentle landing on the ocean. But neither came to pass. The design was wrought with problems that would take too long to solve.
We won’t have to wait too long to see what happens with SpaceX’s ocean platform recovery. And the good thing is that if it all goes south — the company gives success a 50/50 shot — it’ll be far too far away to hurt anyone.