Just hours before SpaceX’s fifth cargo mission (CRS-5) was due to be launched to the International Space Station (ISS), the company’s CEO and CTO was up late in Cape Canaveral answering fans’ questions on Reddit, the social networking website touted as “the front page of the Internet.” During a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” feature, Musk discussed SpaceX’s future, including the Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT) project meant to take humans to Mars and back to Earth, the company’s attempt to land the first stage of its Falcon 9 v1.1 on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean, his influences in life, and inspiration.
User “EchoLogic” asked three questions on behalf of the SpaceX fan community, encompassing the Falcon Heavy, Mars colonization, and spacesuit technology. When asked: “Some have speculated that at stage separation the Falcon Heavy center core is too far downrange and traveling too fast to be feasibly returned to the launch site. Could you go into some detail on whether you plan to use barge landings permanently for this core, expend it depending on the mission, or take the payload loss and boost back to the launch site?” Musk responded: “Yes, the Falcon Heavy center core is seriously hauling a** at stage separation. We can bring it back to the launch site, but the boost back penalty is significant. If we also have to the plane change for geo missions from Cape inclination (28.5 deg) to equatorial, then a downrange platform landing is needed.”
SpaceX’s head also dropped news about the development of MCT. Musk added in response to a question concerning MCT: “The Mars transport system will be a completely new architecture. [I] am hoping to present that towards the end of this year. Good thing we didn’t do it sooner, as we have learned a huge amount from Falcon and Dragon.” Musk stated later: “Goal is 100 metric tons of useful payload to the surface of Mars. This obviously requires a very big spaceship and booster system.” Discussing a spacesuit project he stated: “Our spacesuit design is finally coming together and will also be unveiled later this year. We are putting a lot of effort into design esthetics, not just utility. It needs to both look like a 21st century spacesuit and work well. Really difficult to achieve both.”
Enthusiasm is still running high about SpaceX’s attempt to land its first stage on a floating barge, scheduled to occur Friday during the next CRS-5 launch attempt. One Redditor asked: “How will you secure the first stage of the Falcon 9 to the barge when it lands? Gravity or some mechanism?” To which Musk responded: “Mostly gravity. The center of gravity is pretty low for the booster, as all the engines and residual propellant is at the bottom. We are going to weld steel shoes over the landing feet as a precautionary measure.”
User “AvenueEvergreen” asked: “Previously, you’ve stated that you estimate a 50% probability of success with the attempted landing on the automated spaceport drone ship tomorrow. Can you discuss the factors that were considered to make that estimation? In addition, can you talk more about the grid fins that will be flying tomorrow? How do they compare to maneuvering with cold-gas thrusters?” Musk responded with humor: “I pretty much made that up. I have no idea… The grid fins are super important for landing with precision. The aerodynamic forces are way too strong for the nitrogen thrusters. In particular, achieving pitch trim is hopeless. Our atmosphere is like molasses at Mach 4!” When asked how he’d celebrate if the barge landing was a success, he answered, “Party at Cocoa Beach!”
Perhaps the most illuminating answer from Musk involved one of his influences growing up: a school principal. Danielle Miller asked: “I’m a teacher, and I always wonder what I can do to help my students achieve big things. What’s something your teachers did for you while you were in school that helped to encourage your ideas and thinking? Or, if they didn’t, what’s something they could have done better?” Musk candidly related: “The best teacher I ever had was my elementary school principal. Our math teacher quit for some reason and he decided to sub in himself for math and accelerate the syllabus by a year. We had to work like the house was on fire for the first half of the lesson and do extra homework, but then we got to hear stories of when he was a soldier in WWII. If you didn’t do the work, you didn’t get to hear the stories. Everybody did the work.”
In spaceflight, encountering adversity is the norm, not an exception; last year’s events in late October (an Antares rocket failure, followed by the crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo) underscored that “it is rocket science.” One user briefly touched on the setbacks experienced in this field by asking: “You seem to have had to deal with a tremendous amount of adversity in a few of your ventures. Do you have any advice for those dealing with seemingly insurmountable adversity?” Musk replied, “There is a great quote by Churchill: ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going.’” On Friday, SpaceX helmed by Musk will “keep going” with CRS-5’s next launch attempt planned at 5:09 a.m.
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