SpaceX moving quickly towards fly-back first stage

March 28 2013 06:03:11 PM | by Clark Lindsey, Managing Editor

During the NASA/SpaceX teleconference on the CRS-2 mission, Elon Musk confirmed the rumors that they will do a propulsive return test on the upcoming flight of the new Falcon V1.1. He expanded on this to say they will continue doing such tests until they can do a return to the launch site and a powered landing.

For the upcoming flight, after stage separation the first stage booster will do a burn to slow it down and then a second burn just before it reaches the water.

In subsequent flights they will continue these over-water tests. He repeatedly emphasized that he expects several failures before they learn how to do it right.

If all goes well with the over-water tests, they will fly back to launch site and land propulsively. He expects this could happen by mid-2014. Since they don't know how many tests they will need, they don't know exactly which flight this would be.

This is a very accelerated schedule from what most people expected. If they succeed at flying back and landing the first stage, that would be a real revolution in space transport.

Comments (35)

"Satellite operators have already expressed their confidence in the inherent reliability of SpaceX's LOX/kero engines." Parse my sentence - "reusability". By the time they work out the refurbishment of these engines they'll be flying with far cleaner low molecular weight hydrocarbons. There is a reason for that. I'm sure the high value asset owners and operators know the difference between flying a brand new engine the first time, once, and flying a used engine, testing and qualification aside. Read More
29th March 2013 7:41am
Coastal Ron
"Guest", why do you assume that a reusable Falcon 9 will only be used in a "fast turnaround" mode? Are you thinking they will only have a fleet of one? You are jumping the gun on this, since SpaceX has shown that they are very incremental in their approach to things, and there is no reason to suspect that they won't continue that approach. That means they will incorporate reusability incrementally. For instance, they don't have to reuse the Merlin engines right away, they could just reuse the Read More
29th March 2013 10:50am
Whoever invents an algorithm that can distinguish a monomaniac from a troll deserves a PhD.
29th March 2013 11:53am
I suspect that the least known part of the equation is how to control the top half of the return flight. Enough fuel should accommodate a workable heat profile, but how do you steer? Don't remember any cylinders with the engines up front controlled reentry experiments. But they have every opportunity to work it out and the boldness to do it ahead of schedule.
28th March 2013 11:31pm
As I understand it, the F9 v1.1 first stage will have a cold gas RCS to turn the stage round prior to the deceleration burn.
29th March 2013 6:07am
Terence Clark
Pretty much every hint at stage II reusability has indicated exactly that, a stage that rotates, reenters using ablative materials on the lead edge, then flips around once again to propulsively land.
Yesterday 10:12am
Henry Vanderbilt
Interesting. F9 stages fairly high and fast - mach 10 and 50 miles up were mentioned in the results of a quick search. That's a fair amount of spare propellant that'll have to be still on board the first stage after separation, to slow it down enough so it doesn't come back down crisped. Mach 2 is about the lower-atmosphere limit for aluminum structures... I get roughly 1 to 1.5 times the dry stage mass in spare propellant, depending on how much aerobraking they can use without crisping Read More
28th March 2013 8:39pm
It would actually be Mach 6 for a reusable F9 according to Musk.
See article in Popular Mechanics, "Elon Musk on SpaceX’s Reusable Rocket Plans", February 7, 2012.
29th March 2013 6:08pm
I think their schedule there is very agressive. This is a completely new LV. So personally I will be happy if it succeeds at putting its payload into orbit. If they really manage to "land" on the ocean and then recover the stage, this would be an amazing feat.
28th March 2013 4:13pm
I noticed some on the nasaspaceflight forums making the argument that, even if the stage is recoverable, that does not guarantee that the business case for reusability will close. Any thoughts?
28th March 2013 3:38pm
Coastal Ron
Does the business case close? Good question. It certainly depends on how much it costs to refurbish the 1st stage and make it ready for it's next flight - inspection, repair & replacement, spares, dedicated personnel, etc.

Hard to see how it would cost as much (or even more) to reuse a 1st stage than it would to build a new one. Even if they cut costs by only 50% that would probably cut their prices by 30%. I think their customers would be OK with a 30% price cut.

28th March 2013 6:48pm
Rand Simberg
Not necessarily. You have to factor in the performance penalty It's not clear where the cost per pound goes.
30th March 2013 11:58am
Clark S. Lindsey
The arguments against RLV economic viability all assume little or no increase in launch demand despite the big drop in price that RLVs would offer. The counter-argument is to list various new space apps and old ones that will quickly grow if space access becomes affordable. The problem, of course, is there is no way to prove that such a growth in demand will occur until the lower prices actually become available. SpaceX and also Blue Origin (which, unlike Stratolaunch, has always made an RLV Read More
29th March 2013 11:21am
Robert Horning
I keep thinking about what markets are going to emerge that might pay for an increased launch rate. I agree that a lowering of the price is going to cause an increase in demand, and that new opportunities for spaceflight that until now haven't been considered because it simply couldn't be afforded will emerge.... but will it be enough? Anything to do with space seems to take longer and ultimately cost more regardless of how hard you try. Amazing progress has been made in the past decade to Read More
31st March 2013 4:57pm
Coastal Ron
Yes, I agree that the market will take time to adjust to the new price points. New business cases that take advantage of the new lower prices have to make their way through the proposal cycles, and then new hardware has to be built that takes advantage of those new business cases. What a mess SpaceX is creating... ;-)
31st March 2013 5:32pm
Terence Clark
Certainly no one market is completely representative of another one, even a related one. But if the rapid growth of potential interested parties for suborbital is any guide, much of the early growth will be from untapped corners of existing markets like scientific exploration. Areas where they just didn't quite have the cash to make it happen at the old price points. In suborbital (which I realize still hasn't fully gotten off the ground, so to speak), the customer base broadened markedly, Read More
Yesterday 2:33pm
So the milestones for the reusability program are becoming clearer. 1. First stage reignition. 2. Successful water landing. 3. Intact recovery from water. 4. Ability to refurbish and reuse 1st stage. 5. Successful return to launchpad. 6. Reduce cost and time delay of first stage reuse until economically attractive. 7. Reignite 2nd stage. 8. Intact recovery or powered landing of 2nd stage. 9. Ability to refurbish and reuse 2nd stage. 10. Economically viable reuse of 2nd stage. --- So Read More
28th March 2013 1:21pm
Dan Cockerill
Just a quick Question: do steps 3 & 4 really need to be accomplished? If the ultimate goal is a landing at the launch site, they would seem to be unneccesary.
28th March 2013 1:29pm
They still need to figure out the details of how best to refurbish a stage that has actually flown and experienced the full rigors of an orbital launch, so I would guess they would use ones recovered from the water to begin that process even if they don't actually use them again in flight.
28th March 2013 2:50pm
I agree that they might do sea recovery for engineering assessment, not reuse. If tests go well, they could try landing on a barge :-) I'll be surprised if it doesn't home in on a landing beacon...?
28th March 2013 4:54pm
Andrew Platzer
I don't think the first stages used in water landings will be reused. It's for testing the hardware to reduce the risk of a crash when they start trying to touchdown on land. I wouldn't be surprised if they 'land it' 50 feet above the water and let it drop into the ocean rather than have the engine exhaust hit the water. That said, they will have to have a recovery ship nearby since hopefully it will end up down intact.
28th March 2013 2:39pm
Good point. So maybe they'll go directly from intact water recovery to landing attempts. Although couldn't they still learn something about what kind of refurbishment will be necessary as soon as they begin recovering? They've never yet recovered a first stage from a Falcon 9 launch, so it would be an education bonanza for them.
28th March 2013 2:53pm
Coastal Ron
I don't see any reason why they wouldn't keep the engines going until the 1st has "landed" in the ocean. Or at least until they think it has reached the right spot. The big issue will be that the ocean is not flat, so figuring out when to "stop" is not going to be easy, especially if all they have to rely upon is GPS.
28th March 2013 3:29pm
Andrew Platzer
As I understand it, even with the single centre M1D throttled down to its minimum 70%, the T/W is still greater than 1. This means they can't hover and have to decelerate hitting zero velocity at just the right height. I'm guessing they'll aim high for the first few tests to get an idea of how much they could be off and not end up hitting the water until after they stop.
29th March 2013 10:52am
very exciting. the rlv project at spacex is infinitely more important and significant than nasa's pork rocket (which is actually impeding progress in space.
28th March 2013 11:43am
Clark S. Lindsey
I endorse all of your points.
28th March 2013 12:07pm
This is an excitingly fast timeline, but the revolution is only complete when they successfully reuse a first stage at a substantial saving ie without having to do so much inspection and refurbishment that it would be cheaper to use a new one. I am very optimistic about this.
28th March 2013 11:33am
Clark S. Lindsey
I hope we soon see them doing fast turnaround tests with the Grasshopper. This was one of the primary goals for the VTVL DC-X/XA project, which achieved a 26 hour turnaround. SpaceX is limited to a fairly low altitude at McGregor so they may eventually focus on turnaround issues there. It appears they will do high altitude tests at White Sands and/or with these tests of the first stage during orbital launches.
28th March 2013 12:06pm
Tom Billings
Not only did DC-X succeed at the 26 hours turnaround, they came within a hair's breadth of a 7 hour turn around the day before. I was watching that day, and they were about to do a second launch, when a thunderstorm intervened. Since this experimental rocket was not equipped with systems to chill and retank the Hydrogen boiling out of its tank on the pad, and instead was venting it to the atmosphere, the DC-X had to be unloaded before the Thunderstorm arrived, for safety. That put the team Read More
28th March 2013 12:14pm
Gary Warburton
I think the ocean landing is not to recover it but to just pretend to land on the ocean as if it is solid ground to see if they can do it and show they have control over it. Then when they are sure they can do it, to land on solid ground on it`s legs.
28th March 2013 2:45pm
Hydrogen is far more conducive to fast turnaround operations than the more viscous longer chain and cyclic hydrocarbons, no matter how refined they may be.
28th March 2013 5:43pm
Maybe I'm completely missing your point, Guest, but I don't think the length of the hydrocarbon chain will have a serious impact on turnaround time. Gasoline-powered vehicles don't have any issue with turnaround time, and kerosene acts a lot like gasoline when you're pouring it into a tank.

If you're thinking of engine reusability, appropriately designed kerosene engines won't need any maintenance between back-to-back flights.

28th March 2013 6:02pm
I'm sure owners and operators of billion dollar satellites will take great comfort in your assessment of the coking behaviors and reusability of high performance kerosene rocket engines.
I'm also sure they'll have it all sorted out after a hundred or so equivalent engine flights. The switch to liquid methane is revealing enough in and of itself.
29th March 2013 5:53am
the opposite is true. handling hydrogen is a lot more tricky (and thus time consuming) than kerosene. commercial airliners use kerosene and they certainly achieve fast turnaround times.
29th March 2013 2:36am
"I'm sure owners and operators of billion dollar satellites will take great comfort in your assessment of the coking behaviors and reusability of high performance kerosene rocket engines." Satellite operators have already expressed their confidence in the inherent reliability of SpaceX's LOX/kero engines. See the launch manifest. "I'm also sure they'll have it all sorted out after a hundred or so equivalent engine flights." The validation testing for the Marlin-1D put the equivalent of ten duty Read More
29th March 2013 6:18am

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