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SpaceX unveils flyback Falcon rocket reusability plan
Posted: September 30, 2011

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SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk, speaking at the National Press Club Thursday, unveiled an innovative plan to recover his company's spent rocket stages by flying them back to the launch site using their own engines for a powered vertical descent to touchdown on strut-like landing gear. If the system works, Musk said, launch costs would be dramatically reduced.

"It's just a very tough engineering problem," he said. "(But) I've come to the conclusion that it can be solved. And SpaceX is going to try to do it.

"Now, we could fail. I'm not saying we are certain of success here, but we are going to try to do it. We have a design that on paper, doing the calculations, doing the simulations, it does work. Now we need to make sure those simulations and reality agree because generally, when they don't, reality wins."

All currently flying orbit-class rockets are known as expendable launch vehicles because their stages simply fall into the ocean or burn up in the atmosphere after boosting satellites and other payloads into space. NASA's space shuttle was partially reusable in that the orbiter itself and its two-solid-fuel boosters were recovered after launch. But launch costs remained high for a variety of reasons and in any case, the shuttle is no longer flying.

SpaceX holds contracts to build and launch unmanned supply ships to the International Space Station using the company's two-stage Falcon 9 rocket. The company also is in the second phase of a NASA program to develop a manned version of its Dragon capsule as a possible commercial endeavor.

Recovering the Falcon 9 first stage for refurbishment and reuse has been a long-standing goal for SpaceX, but the plan unveiled Thursday goes far beyond the parachute recovery previously envisioned.

In a dramatic video animation (posted above), a Falcon 9 rocket is shown blasting off from Cape Canaveral, Fla. After separating from the second stage, the first stage flips about to put its engines in the direction of travel, three of the nine powerplants re-ignite to slow the booster, which then deploys three folding landing struts to make a vertical landing on a concrete pad.

In similar fashion, the second stage flips about after deploying its payload, fires its engine to drop out of orbit and then flips around again, re-entering the atmosphere head first, protected by a heat shield at the top of the stage. Once out of the high-speed, high-heating zone, the second stage would flip around again for a powered descent to touchdown.

SpaceX already plans for the manned version of its Dragon capsule to make a similar powered descent.

"We'll see if this works," Musk said. "But it's going to be certainly an exciting journey. And if it does work, it'll be pretty huge. If you look at the cost of a Falcon 9 ... it's about $50 (million) to $60 million. But the cost of the fuel and oxygen and so forth is only about $200,000. So obviously, if we can reuse the rocket, say, a thousand times, then that would make the capital cost of the rocket for launch only about $50,000. ... It would allow about a hundred-fold reduction in launch costs."

Musk said designing and building the recovery systems will not slow down work on the company's manned spacecraft or unmanned cargo ships and that development will be carried out in parallel.

SpaceX currently is gearing up to launch its first unmanned cargo craft to the International Space Station following a generally successful test flight last year. Liftoff of the upcoming flight had been planned for Nov. 30, but Musk said the recent failure of a Russian Progress supply ship, and subsequent delays for Russian manned missions, likely would push the SpaceX launch into January.