The legs for Falcon 9’s first stage.

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The legs for Falcon 9’s first stage.

They might make their first flight on the next supply mission to ISS, now scheduled for no earlier than March 1.



  • mpthompson

    Crossing my fingers that testing goes well this year. The revolution that a fully reusable first stage would bring cannot be underestimated. And, I believe, SpaceX will be trying to make the second stage reusable as well.

    A question I have, is the technology only now just available to make a reusable rocket possible? Or, could something like this have been done decades ago? If so, it seems negligent that NASA wasn’t pioneering such obvious innovation.

  • geoffc

    There are many aspects to what makes reusability possible today.

    1) Materials are a bit better, but honestly not so much so as to truly matter.
    2) Computers for control are better. But they were really good at doing more with less in the past so I dunno if I buy it.
    3) Engine design – Merlin is not that super an engine performance wise. It is pretty good, but the RL-10 is pretty good as well, as DC-X showed. (Not enough thrust, per se).

    Mostly what is happening different now, is that a private company that is NOT interested in being a big pork driven space company like Boeing, LockMart have become, for many complex reasons over the decades, decided to do it.

    The desire to do so, is what is new now.

  • Something like this could have been done decades ago. However, NASA wasn’t negligent in not doing it because as a government operation it just isn’t in their DNA to innovate. Government operations don’t take risks. They have no profit motive to cut costs. And their customer base are politicians in Congress using other people’s money forcibly coerced from them, not private citizens who are voluntarily buying their products and have to be convinced to do so.

    Put things in private hands and all things are possible, very quickly. Twas a lesson the U.S. was trying to teach the Soviet Union in the 1960s. Instead, we taught ourselves to copy the Soviets.

  • mpthompson

    Thanks for the explanation. I pretty much knew this already, but hoped that there must be something beyond government bureaucratic inertia that blocked such innovation.

    Let’s say SpaceX, using a reusable first, second stage and capsule, can drive the cost of a launch of the F9 to $10M. That’s less than $2M a seat on a fully load loaded Dragon. How many more more people and how much more material could NASA have gotten into space at that price? It’s sickening when one thinks about what could have been done in low Earth orbit the last 30 years at such economies of scale.

    This nation is fortunate to have SpaceX and the other new space companies. However, I do hope that if the price for access to orbit comes down that other nations will purchase their own F9 flights. Particularly if Bigelow can provide equally cost effective orbital complexes. Given that some EU nations are looking at the Dream Chaser hopefully such international markets for low-cost space transport will open up soon.

  • Rodney

    The Merlin has a Pintle injector which allows for a really deep throttle. This country went decades without a new liquid engine design. I’m sure when they were designing the RS-68 that “vertical landing and reusability were not mentioned in the Official Requirements Document.”

  • Edward

    Robert, you stated that very nicely. Oh, the irony that the US copied the Soviets in the “big government” model of space access. Oh, the irony that we freedom loving Americans bought into that model. We should have known better, but it was NASA, and they did the impossible; we just assumed that they would remain free to innovate. What happens when we assume? Yeah, that’s right.

    mpthompson, we expected the Space Shuttle to get much more material and people into space much more regularly. I think that NASA believed so, too, until they discovered that the thermal tiles took much more damage than anticipated. Repairs and other maintenance took too long and cost too much, which is why NASA and Congress chose a different, more 1960s, design for Orion. So much for innovation and leading-edge technology.

    Congress was outraged that the original space station, “Freedom,” would cost $32 billion including shuttle launches for construction in 1986 dollars, so they had NASA redesign it into something scientists had less use for. Later, inviting the Russians and other countries actually increased US costs, rather than decrease costs through sharing them among the other partners. So the International Space Station cost much more than Congress had intended in the mid 1980s, using up even more money that could have been used for other manned or unmanned reusable launchers, such as the VentureStar (X-33), Delta Clipper (DC-X), or the test-bed Reusable Launch Vehicle (X-34); or even the Crew Return Vehicle, which would have allowed for larger science crews on the ISS. All of these died from lack of funding, money that the Shuttle and ISS were burning like F-1 engines.

    These last “X” vehicles were pretty much the last of any innovation at NASA, and the innovations were all from the contractors. This lack of innovation is the price of letting Congress fund an agency whose technology they don’t understand. As Robert said, “Government operations don’t take risks.”

    As I like to say: when you let government run things, you will only get what government wants. When you let We the People run things, you will get what We the People want. And at a price We the People are willing to pay.

  • “Oh, the irony that the US copied the Soviets in the “big government” model of space access. Oh, the irony that we freedom loving Americans bought into that model.”

    You really really should read Leaving Earth, he writes, shamelessly plugging one of his books.

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