Never mind the usual snooze media headlines about SpaceX botching, stumbling, or failing to softly land their Falcon 9 first stage last Saturday. What they did “astonishingly right,” as aerospace engineer Rand Simberg puts it, certainly justifies plenty of optimism for next time.
After stage separation about 90 km high, they relit three of the first stage’s nine engines to slow down from about 3,000 mph. After re-entry, three more engines were relit to aim it at the tiny (from so high up) drone ship with its bulls-eye landing platform and four small fins were deployed to help steer it. Slowed down sufficiently, a single engine relight was all that was needed for a soft landing.
“With the exception of the final landing itself, almost everything went according to plan,” Simberg writes. “The vehicle entered intact, flew to the ship, and (apparently literally) hit the deck, because the hydraulic fluid that controlled the fins ran short by 10% of that needed to control and softly land.
“But in so doing, it accomplished another major ‘first,’ not just for a private company, but for any space ship. Previous Falcon flights had demonstrated the ability to enter the stage intact by retrothrusting (as opposed to simply braking against the atmosphere), but this was the first time such a vehicle had not only survived entry, but flown precisely to a pre-designated location, without wings.”
Space X will try again Jan. 29. When they finally succeed, as they almost certainly will, the next step will be to figure out how much it will cost to quickly and reliably, reuse the stage to cut their about $61 million price of a Falcon 9 launch.
Unlike the snooze media, bureaucratic NASA must be green with envy.