During a teleconference detailing the return of Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Dragon spacecraft from its second resupply flight to the International Space Station, the company’s chief executive officer, Elon Musk, detailed how SpaceX is working to modify its highly-successful Falcon 9—in ways that could prove revolutionary. These are, however, just a few of many new designs the roughly ten-year-old company is working on that could herald a new age of human space exploration.
Musk detailed how SpaceX has been working toward a number of upgrades to both its Falcon 9 launch vehicle and its Dragon spacecraft.
For the Falcon 9, these include the addition of the new Merlin 1D engines—which will significantly increase the amount of weight the rocket would be able to send to orbit—recovering the first stage at first out at sea, and then having the first stage return to the landing site under its own power.
“These new upgrades will allow us to pack the Dragon spacecraft essentially full; it could raise the usable payload by several tons … this is also the version of the Falcon 9 where we will attempt to recover the first stage, although, as I’ve said before, I think it will take us several flights before we’re successful in that. I’m not sure it will be this flight where we are successful, but that is one of our aspirations as well as one of the key design goals of the new version of Falcon 9,” Musk said.
Musk described the thought process that had guided the company to date.
“We started out with a water landing because that was probably the easiest thing to do, and we didn’t really know what we were doing in the beginning. Things are getting better, but we didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks. Now, we want to try and push the envelope and take technology to where it hasn’t been before,” Musk added.
He then went on to detail how the first stage return would be conducted, as well as to reiterate that this was a totally new maneuver using newly-developed technology—one which has not been attempted before and could take some time before the California-based firm gets to work as advertised. Besides expressing caution, Musk said that SpaceX does not currently have a specific mission targeted for when his company will try to fly the first stage back to the landing site, only stating that they plan to attempt it sometime next year.
“The initial recovery attempts will be from a water landing, so the first-stage booster will, after separation, continue in a ballistic arc and execute a velocity reduction burn in the atmosphere to lessen the impact. Then, right before splashdown of the stage, it’s going to light the engine again. So there will be two burns after stage separation, if things go well,” Musk said. “I want to emphasize that we don’t expect success in the first several attempts. Hopefully next year, with a lot more experience and data, we should be able to return the first stage to the launch site, deploy its landing legs, and then do a propulsive landing on land back at the launch site. So this year our efforts will be focused on recovering a first stage at all from an ocean landing, and then next year it will be about the return to launch site with the landing gear deployed.”
Throughout the course of the discussion, Musk further cautioned those listening that he felt it would take SpaceX at least a year to “ … get that right.” Musk predicted that, if everything went according to plan, water landings would become a thing of the past. If successful, this could be a watershed moment in terms of space flight.
Currently, NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and other launch services customers use what are known as Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles, or “EELVs.” These boosters are disposable, with none of them being retrieved from the ocean, much less from land. The benefits of a booster that could conduct such a maneuver would be enormous. If this process can be mastered, the turnaround time between launches could be decreased. Also, as each new booster would no longer have to be individually built, costs per launch could decrease. SpaceX has already demonstrated that it is testing the techniques involved with returning a rocket’s first stage back to dry land.
SpaceX is currently developing its “Grasshopper” Vertical Takeoff and Landing Vehicle (VTVL), which has somewhat similar properties to the McDonnell Douglas DC-X “Delta Clipper” which was tested by Apollo astronaut Pete Conrad in the 1990s. These efforts highlight a company that has its eye on incorporating new concepts and designs into its offerings.
Musk also touched on what progress his company has made in terms of returning the capability of launching U.S. astronauts to orbit from American soil. He went on to convey his thanks to NASA for their support of his company’s efforts to accomplish this goal.
“Things seem to be going pretty well; we’re making our milestones and making progress. We’re hoping to do the pad abort tests fairly soon—perhaps later this year. That’s going to be an exciting test, and we’ll actually be able to unveil what Dragon version 2 looks like; also, later this year we’re working with NASA on that.” Musk described the crewed variant of Dragon, with its pop-out legs as resembling an “alien spaceship.” “It’s coming along really well, as with the cargo program; the partnership with NASA from our perspective is going really well. It’s a really great partnership.”
Musk and Shotwell both thanked the NASA team at Glenn Research Center for the assistance that they provided to the company’s efforts. Musk referred to the space agency’s efforts on SpaceX’s behalf as: “Epic, super cool.”