SpaceX and the First Stage That Could

So what’s the big deal with what SpaceX did? Didn’t Blue Origins do this a few weeks ago? But the poor people, surely this money could go to them! etc. etc. Going to tackle all of this and more.

So for a few years now SpaceX has been working toward landing the first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket so that it can be reused on the cheap. The Falcon 9 is what they’ve been using to launch satellites and run supply missions to the ISS. So basically they want to accomplish what the shuttle completely failed to do (reusable, yes, but not cheaply/safely). And if you don’t know, the first stage is the biggest, most fuel-filled part that does the heaviest lifting, because it faces the most atmospheric resistance.

Okay so years ago they did a then-historic vertical takeoff/landing with the Grasshopper, which was a much smaller rocket made only to test automated landing, get data from it, etc. It never went into orbit, it just went really high up, then landed. They did this a few times and then moved on to doing it with a Falcon 9’s first stage.

Now, the FAA wouldn’t let them do the landings on land until they’d proven it was reliable. So they created these barges that floated out in the ocean for the rocket to land on. Just think about how difficult that is, even without all the literal rocket science for making it land in a general area. The barge is shifting in all 3 dimensions, so they’re hitting a moving target. They successfully got the rocket to the barge two or three times, but never stuck a perfect landing. But this was enough for the FAA to grant them the option to land on the ground.

So then a few weeks ago, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origins successfully did a suborbital launch and stuck a landing as well (on land). This effort is most comparable to what SpaceX was doing years ago with the grasshopper, but higher up, larger rocket, etc. So yes, this is worthy of note! They did one-up the Grasshopper tests, but what they did doesn’t hold a candle to last night’s accomplishment.

So last night, SpaceX launched their Falcon 9 (which was carrying 11 rockets to be put into orbit) for the first time with the option to land the first stage on land. And they stuck the landing without any issue. The rest of the rocket went on to successfully launch its satellites. How they did this was by saving some extra fuel for the landing, pretty much. Once the first stage had separated, it autonomously flipped itself so its rockets were facing the ground it was falling toward. Landing legs unfolded from the sides of the rocket, and the engines fired for a series of burns to re-position the rocket and eventually ease it into place on the landing pad. Mission accomplished!

So what does this mean? This means SpaceX can eventually start re-using the first stage of the rockets for future launches. I would assume that this first stage will be heavily studied to see what kind of damage or strain it took during the entire process. There will, of course, be an intense refurbishing effort made to future spent stages to make sure it can handle a second, or third launch. So eventually we’ll have a cheaper means of going into space. And if SpaceX can carry this success over to their larger rocket, it could help us get to Mars and beyond a little bit cheaper.

Oh and as for the complaint about how this money/effort could have gone to -insert cause of choice-? Look, I know we’ve got plenty of issues here on earth, but the people who complain like this aren’t the ones who are doing anything about it. And when you look at the budget of NASA, it’s like not even a single percent of the US military’s budget. It’s like complaining that someone who waters a plant is wasting water when you’ve got a guy across the street with several Olympic sized swimming pools full of water that he doesn’t use. Not to mention that SpaceX is a private company and complaining that its actions are wasteful for not fixing -insert cause of choice- is bullshit anyway. Do you bitch about this when Facebook rolls out a new look? When a new phone comes out? When the small restaurant across the street expands? No, of course not.

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