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SpaceX Reflies and Recovers Booster

Serious, big-time space history was made today: SpaceX successfully used a booster that it had used once before to boost a satellite . Let me say that again. For the first time in history a rocket has been used twice to boost a payload into orbit. Oh, and they recovered the booster for a second time, too.

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Wait, that’s not right.  NASA’s Space Transportation System (STS), the Space Shuttle, did it. But the Shuttle never delivered what it was sold as and what it promised — cheap access to space. Each shuttle flight cost at least $500 million, and the Shuttle had inherent flaws in its design that made it a very delicate machine.  A SpaceX flight — before re-use — costs just over $100 million.

Elon Musk says it so often that space geeks like me almost don’t hear it any longer, but it’s worth repeating: If you threw airliners into the ocean after using them once, air travel would be prohibitively expensive … except for the largest governments and corporations in the world, and only for a very small number of purposes. Being able to reuse rockets that cost over a hundred million dollars each changes everything about space flight. It truly opens up the space frontier.

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If you want to see history in the making, here’s the video:

If you watch to the end you’ll see Musk saying that air travel would cost a lot more if we threw away airliners after a single use. Just in case you haven’t heard him say it before.

But wait! There’s more! As with all such payloads, the satellite on today’s mission was covered with a nose-cone — an aerodynamic fairing to protect the satellite while the rocket accelerated through the atmosphere before it reached the vacuum of space. That was brought down with a parachute on this flight … and recovered from the ocean. Like the first stage booster, that will require refurbishment, but a good deal of the $6 million value of the faring ought to be salvaged. Apparently, SpaceX has plans to add an inflatable “bumper” for fairings like this, that will minimize damage when it lands in the water, and might keep it out of the water entirely.

But wait! There’s more! Elon Musk also announced today that when SpaceX flies its Falcon Heavy rocket for the first time this summer, the company will attempt to recover the rocket’s second stage. To get a grasp of the audacity of this, consider first that the Falcon Heavy starts out with three cores as a first and “first-and-a-half” stage. These are basically slightly modified versions of the Falcon 9, the rocket SpaceX re-flew and recovered again today:

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So, if everything goes right, the Falcon Heavy will put on quite a show because the two boosters strapped to the center core will return to the Kennedy Space Center — at the same time — and the center booster will either return to KSC or land on the recovery ship in the ocean downrange.

Then … again, if things go right … the second stage will orbit the earth once after adding the last velocity required to put the (very heavy) payload into orbit, fire its engine to brake from orbit, reenter the atmosphere from orbital velocity and land vertically, like the main boosters. Phew.

FWIW, SpaceX had been talking a lot about a recoverable second stage a few years ago, but then went quiet on the subject. Elon Musk is often criticized for hyping things too early and too much before he has working hardware to back up the hype. Maybe he learned his lesson.

We don’t have any details about how far along the recoverable second stage is. The “recoverable” part may be less advanced than the Falcon 9 was before recovery was tried (and failed three times before the first success). So I don’t have a lot of hope that the Falcon Heavy second stage will make it back in one piece, or even that all three of the first stage boosters will be recovered on the first flight.

Nevertheless, this a great day for humanity. Somebody just might get off this rock.

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