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SpaceX has the coolest Twitter feed.
Earlier today, SpaceX posted this Vine of one of their rockets landing on the deck of floating drone ship, “Just Read The Instructions”. The ship is named after science fiction writer Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels.
Falcon 9 first stage landing burn and touchdown on Just Read the Instructions https://t.co/4Te0BfT2Qn
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) April 15, 2015
The landing wasn’t completely successful. According to Elon Musk, the rocket was moving sideways too fast when it landed, and fell over immediately after touchdown. You can see that more clearly on this video, recovered from the drone ship.
The rocket in question was one of the boosters from the SpaceX Dragon which ferried supplies to the ISS today, (including an Italian espresso machine). Recovering this booster wasn’t officially part of the mission — SpaceX used the launch as an opportunity to test their booster recovery system. This is the second test of that system this year. While the launch wasn’t totally successful, the rocket did land on the drone ship without exploding, which is a big improvement over the first attempt.
That failure was due to the steering system running out of hydraulic fluid before landing. This lead to a loss of steering control, and a hard landing, which destroyed the rocket. SpaceX has since fixed that issue. So what went wrong this time?
In a conversation with Oculus VR‘s CTO John Carmack, who runs space startup Armadillo Aerospace on the side, Musk mentioned that the failure was due to too much friction in one of rocket’s steering mechanisms, and should be “easy to fix”.
@ID_AA_Carmack Looks like the issue was stiction in the biprop throttle valve, resulting in control system phase lag. Should be easy to fix.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 15, 2015
Moving Toward Re-usability
So why do we care? The big reason is that space is expensive. Right now, the cheapest launch vehicle, the SpaceX Dragon, costs about $1000 per pound to put something into orbit — that’s a lot cheaper than the space shuttle was, but still too pricey for most consumers. If we want to make space cost-effective for travel, mining, and internet access, those numbers need to come down a LOT.
Part of the problem is that most of the infrastructure you need to get into orbit isn’t reusable. You can recover the tiny capsules that carry passengers and cargo, but the large boosters used to lift them into orbit are destroyed after every use. That’s the problem that SpaceX is trying to solve, by allowing those boosters to land and be reused for many missions. If they can do it, it could bring that $1000 figure down a lot. Getting the cost of space travel down to just the cost of fuel and maintenance would be a huge win for affordable space travel.
In some ways, SpaceX is trying to solve an artificially hard problem. Landing on a drone ship in open seas is much harder than landing on a flat piece of land that doesn’t tip or blow around. However, the FAA prohibits SpaceX from landing rockets on land, due to safety concerns. As a result, SpaceX is forced to try to land in the ocean, which brings a number of complications with it.
Luckily, SpaceX is still making progress. This landing went a lot better than the last one, and it looks like SpaceX knows what went wrong and has a plan to address the shortcoming. Elon Musk stated before the mission that the odds of success was less than 50%. However, he also predicted an 80% chance that SpaceX would successfully recover a booster by the end of this year.
Odds of rocket landing successfully today are still less than 50%. The 80% figure by end of year is only bcs many launches ahead. — Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 13, 2015
Either way, if you want to be able to visit the moon or Mars in your lifetime, you should be excited for the prospect of reusable space travel. Elon Musk certainly is.
If this works, I’m treating myself to a volcano lair. It’s time. — Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 15, 2015
Are you excited about SpaceX technology? Worried about the dangers of space travel? Just like to see rockets explode? Let us know in the comments?