There was this attempt in January, followed by this one in April.
These landing attempts move us toward our goal of producing a fully and rapidly reusable rocket system, which will dramatically reduce the cost of space transport.
A jumbo jet costs about the same as one of our Falcon 9 rockets, but airlines don't junk a plane after a one-way trip from LA to New York. Yet when it comes to space travel, rockets fly only once—even though the rocket itself represents the majority of launch cost.
The Space Shuttle was technically reusable, but its giant fuel tank was discarded after each launch, and its side boosters parachuted into corrosive salt water every flight, beginning a long and involved process of retrieval and reprocessing. So, what if we could mitigate those factors by landing rockets gently and precisely on land? Refurbishment time and cost would be dramatically reduced.
Historically, most rockets have needed to use all of their available fuel in order to get their payload into space. SpaceX rockets were built from the beginning with reusability in mind—they have enough built-in fuel margin to deliver a Dragon to the space station and return the first-stage to Earth. That extra fuel is needed to reignite the engines a few times to slow the rocket down and ultimately land the first stage after it has sent the spacecraft on its way.
In addition to extra fuel, we’ve added a few critical features to our Falcon 9 first stage for reusability’s sake. Our rocket has small, foldable heat-resistant wings called grid fins needed for steering the first-stage as it plummets from the edge of space through Earth’s atmosphere, cold-gas thrusters on the top of the first-stage that are used to flip the rocket around as it begins its journey back to Earth, and strong but lightweight carbon fiber landing legs that deploy as it approaches touchdown. All of these systems, while built and programmed by humans, are totally automated once the rocket is launched—and are reacting and adjusting their behavior based on incoming, real-time data.
So, what have we learned from the most recent landing attempts?
The first attempt to land on a drone ship in the Atlantic was in January, and while we came close, the first stage prematurely ran out of the hydraulic fluid that is used to steer the small fins that help control the rocket’s descent. The vehicle has now been equipped with much more of that critical fluid for steering purposes.
You might also like:
NASA Commercial Crew Human Spaceflight Program for Transport to the International Space Station (ISS): SpaceX Dragon and Boeing CST-100 Contracts, Safety Reviews, History and Update Reports
eBooks (Progressive Management)