Fact checking Elon Musk’s statements about his company’s efforts to reuse the Falcon 9 first stage reminds us of some space history and one of Musk’s chief competitors.

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Fact checking Elon Musk’s statements about his company’s efforts to reuse the Falcon 9 first stage reminds us of some space history and one of Musk’s chief competitors.

The bottom line: Bringing the first stage back to Earth safely and vertically is doable, and has been done before.



  • geoffc

    As the only production actual launch system, fact checking this is an excersize in pettiness.

    DC-X is dead, and never propelled anything anywhere.

    New Shepard, may one day go sub-orbital.

    F-9 Stage 1 has launched 9 times, real payloads to real orbits. And now has soft landed. That is pretty darn unique.

  • The article was very careful to give SpaceX big kudos for what it has accomplished. It also tempered its criticism of Musk for his incorrect statements, recognizing that in the excitement of the moment it is easy to forget history and other competitors.

    I linked the article because it gave some nice details about similar efforts, which illustrated strongly that this effort is not as impossible as some at NASA and elsewhere would have us think.

  • Edward

    I have a disagreement. I think that Musk may have chosen his words carefully: ” No one has ever soft-landed a liquid rocket boost stage before.” The DC-X was never intended to be orbital or suborbital, that was for the next step in their intended development, so I do not consider it to have been a boost stage. As with the Grasshopper, it was only intended for proof of concept.

    Blue Origin, as the article states, is secretive, so we do not know if their test article, PM2 (not New Shepard, the orbital version) is likewise only intended for proof of concept. The first test flight was low altitude and low velocity, not suborbital. The second flight *may* have been intended to be suborbital, but it did not successfully land.

    Words matter: “However, it is not actually the first soft-landing of a liquid-fueled rocket. Elon’s successful test was preceded by the 1992 test flights of the DC-X, and also by Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle.” Musk did not claim to be the first soft-landing of a liquid-fueled rocket. That honor goes to some test vehicle in the 1960s or 1950s, and the first to soft-land on a mission was Luna 9, which was the first probe to soft-land on the moon.

    Indeed, Micheal Griffin’s fact is less correct than Musks, because New Shepard has yet to fly, only the development test vehicles have flown. This, too, may have been an error made in the excitement of the moment.

    The main reason that I disagree that we should suggest that this may have been done before, is that no one before Musk discovered the problems of returning a rocket through the atmosphere. Musk’s first attempt ended in failure because there were so many lessons that had yet to be learned. All these lessons are why he is “landing” in the ocean, rather than trying to come back toward populated land.

    It is unfair to fact check what people did not actually say. Fact checkers should get their facts straight before checking the facts. Indeed, I looked up my own facts to be sure that I was not mis-remembering or misrepresenting them.

    I agree, however, that this is an interesting article, in that it helps to put current developments in context with historical efforts. Context and history are important when determining where we are headed, why we are headed there, and whether the trip is reasonable. That is one of the things that I enjoy most about your posts, Robert, and about everyone’s comments, whether we agree or disagree with each other.

  • Points all well taken. I don’t think we really disagree that much. The point remains that this article does remind us of some of the history, though you are correct that it leaves out the successful vertical landings with rocket engines done on the Moon, on Mars, and during the testing stage when astronauts used LM simulators on the Earth.

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