Capitalism in space: In a series of tweets yesterday SpaceX founder Elon Musk revealed that the company is considering landing Starship’s first stage, Super Heavy, on its launchpad but rather than use landing legs it will be caught by the launch tower.
Instead, Musk says that SpaceX might be able to quite literally catch Super Heavy in mid-air, grabbing the booster before it can touch the ground by somehow slotting an elaborate “launch tower arm” underneath its steel grid fins. Although such a solution sounds about as complex and risky as it gets, it would technically preclude the need for any and all booster recovery infrastructure – even including the legs Super Heavy would otherwise need.
While true, catching Super Heavy by its grid fins would likely demand that control surfaces and the structures they attach to be substantially overbuilt – especially if Musk means that the crane arm mechanism would be able to catch anywhere along the deployed fins’ 7m (23 ft) length. Even more importantly, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that such a complex and unproven recovery method could be made to work reliably on the first one or several tries, implying that early boosters will still need some kind of rudimentary landing legs.
The idea is to save weight on the booster. It also would speed its reuse, as there would no longer be a need to transport it from a landing pad back to the launchpad.
Whether this will work will depend on the accuracy of SpaceX’s vertical landing software. That the company has repeatedly proven, from almost the first time it tried it, that it can bring its rockets down exactly where it intends suggests they will be able to be as accurate as necessary.
Nonetheless, expect more than a few launchpad crashes as they work out the kinks on another audacious engineering concept.
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