Space Exploration Technology executed an impressive return to flight Monday by flawlessly launching an upgraded variant of its Falcon 9 rocket and then manoeuvring a big part back to earth for a pinpoint, precedent-setting landing.
SpaceX, as the closely held Southern California company is known, achieved the dual goals in the wake of a high-profile launch explosion six months ago, which put all Falcon 9 flights on hold and prompted a broad reassessment of the booster’s design and inspection procedures.
After a trouble-free countdown and lift-off of the roughly 230-foot-tall booster from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, SpaceX delivered 11 commercial satellites into low-earth orbit, completing Orbcomm Inc.’s planned constellation.
But the most daunting — and closely watched — portion of the mission occurred more than eight minutes after blast-off, once the spent first stage plummeted toward earth, used its thrusters to steadily slow and then touched down vertically — surrounded by a huge plume of exhaust — on a landing area in the same iconic space complex.
The gentle landing, after several failed attempts to return an identical section of the booster to a barge, marked the first time any large rocket has managed a controlled recovery after delivering a payload into orbit.
Later in the night, as he was on his way to examine the retrieved stage, company founder Elon Musk tweeted his own triumphant message after the earlier series of landing failures caused by mechanical problems. “11 satellites deployed to target orbit and Falcon has landed back at Cape Canaveral,” he sent out on his personal Twitter account. “Welcome back, baby!”
Calling it a “revolutionary moment” for the space industry, the usually controlled and cerebral Mr Musk also was quoted by the Associated Press saying, “I can’t believe it, it’s quite shocking.”
Mr Musk, a billionaire entrepreneur, had been pointing toward the goal for years. But immediately after it happened, SpaceX put out a simple tweet that said it all: “Stage one has landed.”
Rather than simply falling into the sea, or burning up in the atmosphere as typically happens with virtually all big rockets, the first stage and its nine upgraded Merlin engines landed on deployable legs on the converted, 1950s era launch facility. SpaceX engineers erupted into loud screams inside the control room.
Developing a reliable fleet of reusable rockets is expected to take many years, requiring a commercially viable system of automated guidance, precision navigation and advanced thrust control. But it promises to be a game changer for the space industry, since the goal is to enable launch providers to eventually retrieve, refurbish and reuse the largest and most expensive sections of boosters.
The space company backed by Amazon.com Inc.’s founder and chairman Jeff Bezos, another billionaire with huge space ambitions, last month deprived SpaceX of an undisputed claim to the historic achievement of landing a spent rocket back on earth. Blue Origin, a closely held start-up run by Mr Bezos, scored its own coup in November with the successful test flight of a fully reusable rocket, dubbed New Shepard. Travelling back from a suborbital trip to the edge of space — a lower altitude than the one Falcon 9 reached Monday — Blue Origin’s rocket safely landed in West Texas ready for another flight.
The lead-up to Monday’s technical feat wasn’t particularly auspicious. Tests and prelaunch preparations of the revamped rocket — roughly one-third more powerful than the previous Falcon 9 version — took longer than expected and forced an initial slip of a day in the schedule. On Sunday, hours before the rescheduled lift-off, Mr Musk announced another delay of a day, apparently in anticipation of better weather conditions for a landing attempt.
Facing quite a short window to get the launch off Monday, the SpaceX team faced additional pressure because they knew one more scrub threatened to run into the impending Christmas holiday — when officials monitoring the range would be off.
Meeting such rigid time constraints is one of the hardest tasks in the space launch business, particularly with a rocket featuring a passel of new design features.
But with the weather and all systems co-operating, the white rocket roared skyward with split-second timing, followed some three minutes later by the critical separation of its first stage. The second stage flew on for several more minutes to deliver the satellites into their intended positions.
Even with the Falcon 9’s botched launch in June — the first failure in nearly two dozen attempts — SpaceX has established itself as a ferocious, nimble and low-cost competitor for commercial business as well as U.S. military and civilian government missions But above all, both critics and supporters say at this point the company needs to demonstrate the ability to reach and maintain a robust launch tempo similar to the schedules of its major U.S. and European rivals. Those companies launched a dozen times this year.
SpaceX, by contrast, has successfully launched five times this year, and less than 20 times overall since 2010.
The final decision to attempt a touchdown was made contrary to urgings from the Orbcomm team, which worried it would complicate launch preparations, according to one person involved in the discussions.’
But for some time, SpaceX’s leadership has been singularly focused on bringing back a first stage intact.
In addition to the benefits of reusing the most expensive part of the Falcon 9, company engineers believe examining it will provide unprecedented clues and lessons about the precise structural forces buffeting the rocket during ascent.
Mr Musk and his team also are likely to argue that their reusable system is more capable than the one developed by Blue Origin, because Monday’s return to Florida’s Space Coast came from a higher altitude and after a more complex flight.
Mr Bezos, for his part, Tweeted out a message seemingly intended to needle Mr. Musk and unequivocally lay claim to being first. It read, in part, “welcome to the club.”
The SpaceX chief and many other government and private space experts have argued reusability is essential to dramatically reduce launch costs. That, in turn, would make space accessible to an array of companies and researchers that currently can’t afford to get into orbit.
Much less expensive launches also could open up new options for deep-space exploration for the U.S. and other nations.
Some sceptics, however, have argued that reusability will truly become a market differentiator only if SpaceX manages to significantly increase its launch tempo and focuses more on transporting large groups of smaller satellites.
For today’s global operators of the largest broadcast and telecommunications satellites, “launcher reusability is pretty much irrelevant,” Tim Farrar, a Northern California industry consultant, said before the launch.
SpaceX was the first private company to successfully blast a spacecraft into orbit. It also was the first corporate entity to have a capsule rendezvous with the international space station, and to deliver cargo there. Now, Mr Musk’s team is to vying to get the US government’s nod to be the first domestic company to transport astronauts to the space station.
By Andy Pasztor
With many thanks to The Australian