How SpaceX Is Initiating A New Age In Rocket Technology

Everyone remembers Apollo 11. It was undeniably the greatest achievement in human history. The first human endeavor of its kind. It was the first time a human being had set foot upon another world. Even people who were not yet alive to see it, know about how it was the time that NASA landed men on the Moon. You could go down the street and ask random people the question “Apollo. Ring any bells?” and 99% of those people will know exactly what you’re talking about. No one is going to start talking about the Greek god of Sun because, due to the mission’s influence across the globe, Apollo 11 is the first thing that comes to mind. But despite all of NASA’s success, it’s time to turn our attention to private aerospace companies. Because one of them is about to make history.

First came the Grasshopper. In late 2012, SpaceX performed the first test flight of the “Grasshopper”. An experimental, 32 metre tall, rocket drone developed by SpaceX, designed to be the stepping stone towards a new age in rocket technology. The objective? Well, the objective was rather simple actually. But that doesn’t mean it was easy. The craft’s goal was to rise up to a set altitude, then perform a precise controlled landing manoeuvre onto the launch pad. As simple as this goal may seem, it required some of the most exceptional minds in the industry to overcome the mechanical and computational problems posed by the physics of our universe. Damn you, universe… damn you.

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Grasshopper The Grasshopper test vehicle shortly after a successful touchdown  Image Credit: SpaceX

After Grasshopper’s eighth successful flight test in 2013, SpaceX decided to go big. Really big. As in more than double the size of the Grasshopper. SpaceX essentially took its 68.4 metre tall Falcon 9 v1.1 launch vehicle and strapped 4 retractable landing legs to its base. They named the beast “Falcon 9 Reusable Development Vehicle 1”, or F9R-Dev1 for short. Okay fine, the name wasn’t exactly creative, but seeing as it was simply a test vehicle, creativity was unnecessary. After several successful test flights, F9R-Dev1 was destroyed. F9R-Dev1’s flight parameters exceeded pre-determined limits which caused it to self-destruct to avoid damage to local life and property. That’s right… how many rockets can you name that have a self-destruct protocol? Exactly. SpaceX is awesome.

But why go into so much trouble to create a vertically-landing rocket? Well, to launch a Falcon 9 one needs to have about 61.2 million dollars laying about, 0.3% of which accounts for the cost of fuel. It used to be that after liftoff all stages of the rocket, excluding the payload, would be detached to either meet their fiery end under the friction of the atmosphere, or end up at the bottom of the ocean if they survive the reentry. That’s over 60 million worth of engineering designed to be destroyed. What if we didn’t have to design it that way, though? What if we could create a launch vehicle capable of landing back on earth so that it can be reused? That’s likely exactly what Elon Musk thought.

As I’ve described it previously, SpaceX has been working on reusable rockets since 2012. They now see actual Falcon 9 launches as opportunities to test the craft’s landing capability. The launch vehicle performed quite a few test landings out in the ocean. Some were performed on water to test the vehicle’s precision-landing. After quite a few water landings, an offshore landing barge was put into practice. The vehicle attempted, and failed, to land on the deck of the barge multiple times. But with each attempt it was apparent that SpaceX is making progress. Below you can see Falcon 9’s latest April attempt at landing on the barge, and it was brilliant.

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I tweeted, shortly after this image was published, how I loved the way the stage was fighting gravity with its monopropellant thrusters. Even though it failed in the end, I think this launch was a display of incredible progress as it was considerably more successful than previous landing attempts. The latest launch was a missed opportunity. After a nominal liftoff, the Falcon 9 launch vehicle carrying cargo to the ISS had undergone an “overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank approximately 139 seconds into flight”, said an event update on the SpaceX website.

SpaceX, with its reusable rockets, will open the market to thousands upon thousands of new customers. The commercialisation of space is happening as I write here, and it’s a good thing. This will make space more open than ever before, which will most definitely lead to new ideas. The first successful landing is an approaching inevitability, and when it happens, history will be made. It doesn’t matter how important or memorable the Moon landings were. All great achievements are destined to be trumped by the extraordinary feats of the coming generations. SpaceX is working towards that exact future, in style.

Let me know what you think about this in the comments, or tweet at me @ThomasMoszczuk

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