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Musk: Super Heavy will land on launchpad, caught by launch tower

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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  • geoffc

    It is really hard to tell if he was being serious or goofing around with this one line tweet comment. I think people are giving this one line too much credence.

    It seems insane. And yet. The Boring company. Not a flamethrower. Other ideas.
    So who the heck knows, but it will be a ton of fun to watch them figure it out!

  • jburn

    Yet another fascinating approach to solving problems by Elon Musk. In a sense, he’s exploring the transfer of recovery technology from the booster itself to a ground based system. Watching cranes move (un-fueled) Starships around like toys at Boca Chica, perhaps it’s not such a long shot after all.

  • Patrick Underwood

    Pfft, once again Elon steals established tech without adding anything new. Yes that was sarcasm.

    Look up the Ryan X-13 Vertijet from the 1950s. Back then the software was wet.

  • Patrick Underwood

    Reminds me of a joke my dad used to tell:

    This guy arrived at the El Paso airport for a flight to Albuquerque. He asks the ticket agent what time the plane will take off.


    “Ah. And what time will it land?”

    “Let’s see… 1:15pm.”

    Instead of proceeding into the terminal, the man turns and starts to walk out. The ticket agent says “Uh, aren’t you going to board the flight?”

    The man replies “Nope, I’m going outside to watch that dang thing take off.”

    Yep. Similarly, I can’t wait to see this dang thing land.

  • Richard M

    “The best part is no part.”

  • MDN

    While seemingly outrageous at first blush this doesn’t really seem that preposterous at all when you really think about it. SpaceX has now landed 70 odd Falcon 9 first stages in a row, so demonstrably KNOW what they’re doing in this regard. Further, these landings have all achieved incredible accuracy, hitting a circle just 20 meters wide or so. And all of this is with gen1 navigation and avionics.

    So it seems to me that with Gen2 shooting for a 10X+ improvement in landing accuracy would not be unreasonable, and trading off the weight savings for landing legs for a bit more fuel, it certainly seems they could easily hover briefly to allow a capture mechanism to cycle through grabbing the beast. And the turn time efficiencies and economics are staggeringly better, making the payoff really worth the effort if you are serious about making this fast (and Musk has conjectured about multiple flights per day which seemed absurd, but not so much when you add this into the thinking).

    I’m guessing this is real, and that we’ll be seeing it in action sooner rather than later. And safety wise, since Super Heavy will have LOTS of engines, I expect the risk profile for this approach is really not that big at all.

  • Edward

    Patrick Underwood, Thank you for the reference. I found interesting video.

    MDN is right (although there were a few failed landings during the 70). It seems audacious, but all Super Heavy really needs is some fine control, a little hovering capability, and a couple of meters of clearance. Calm winds would be a benefit, too.

    I had not imagined that even SpaceX would need such a rapid turnaround capability for Starship for more than a decade, but if they can work out techniques earlier rather than later, then maybe it is worth doing now.

  • David M. Cook

    Keep in mind he‘s catching an empty booster, 9 times lighter than one ready for takeoff. The fin structure won‘t need that much reinforcement. Still a killer idea!

  • pzatchok

    If he just makes the whole body a ring a foot wide around the engines he can easily land a take off froma launch stant make up of a square grid pattern.

    He can miss by feet and still make a good landing and re-launch.

    Take a piece of graph paper and put a coffee cup ring anyplace on it and tell me where you find an unstable landing area.

    A simple strong steel grid 15 feet off the ground would be fine.

  • Chris Lopes

    Pretty much everything Musk has done at SpaceX was thought impossible before he did it. Reusable boosters? Don’t be ridiculous. Landing them on a robot barge in the middle of the ocean? That’s impossible. Building and launching a human rated spacecraft before the legacy aerospace industry can get anything flying? Not in this reality. So yeah, it sounds like a wild idea and may never work, but Musk has pulled off some really wild ideas before.

  • Cloudy

    SpaceX’s products are both reusable and expendable. Consider that Starship’s construction is dirt cheap by rocket standards. Even used as an expendable, the only expensive parts blown up every time are the engines. The Falcon 9 is like this to a lesser degree. When Falcon 9 was only as an expendable it was still cheaper than all other options. Spacex can afford to lose dozens of Starships learning to land, and maybe even make money doing so.. This may have been a factor in switching to stainless steel.

    The same is not true of Blue Origen’s New Glen.. Every single booster lost will cost hundreds of millions, perhaps billions., in manufacturing costs alone. This is very risky considering they will be lucky to even reach orbit for the first couple flights. Even if they succeed long term through Bezos’s generosity, they may end up with something like the shuttle.

    The shuttle was not expendable, and was not really reusable either. “Salvageable” is the better word. It was the worst of both worlds.. Expensive to buy usually means expensive to fix, as anyone who buys a luxury car will learn.

  • Cloudy wrote: ” “Salvageable” is the better word. It was the worst of both worlds.. Expensive to buy usually means expensive to fix, as anyone who buys a luxury car will learn.”

    Shuttle was a load of compromises that somehow more-or-less did the job it was designed for. It was, and still is, a remarkable achievement, because you have to start somewhere. Yes, that’s a low bar, but my goodness, a low bar is still a standard as long as achievement is measured against it, and not used as a ceiling. And, I’d point out, no one else has managed to loft and re-use anything comparable.

    “Expensive to fix” is why I do not own German cars.

  • Chris

    I’m not taking anything away from Mr Musk but one possibility I think is happening here is that his TEAM is coming up with these ideas. I get the impression that in the Musk organization if you have an idea its yours to propose and prove out. I think this environment may be the source of the continuing stream great ideas and performance.
    Kudos to Musk if this is the case – tapping the creative genius of all the employees is a great way to go.

    The other thing that I see from Musk is the naked drive of a businessman. “Get it done!” Is the attitude. Don’t tell me about limits or “impossibilities”. -get it done. Sounds a lot like a President and his Warp Speed program for vaccines.

  • Edward

    bkivey wrote: “Shuttle was a load of compromises that somehow more-or-less did the job it was designed for. It was, and still is, a remarkable achievement, because you have to start somewhere.

    The Shuttle, in the 1980s, failed to perform as well as advertised. In 2004, It became obvious that NASA and Congress were not enamored with it when they chose to return to 1960s methods of expendable launch vehicles and expendable spacecraft. For the government, the Shuttle disproved the advantages of reusability.

    The Shuttle gave us some nice science, but not as much as intended. The ISS is going the same way, but largely because Bush Jr. decided to save 3% on its cost and reduce its capabilities by 50%.

    Chris wrote: “I’m not taking anything away from Mr Musk but one possibility I think is happening here is that his TEAM is coming up with these ideas.

    They may be coming up with the solutions, but Musk may be asking questions such as: ‘how can we make the turnaround faster?’ Often, what is important is knowing the right questions to ask. When listening to answers, don’t reject any outright, but consider the possibility that the concept is possible even if the specific method looks like it isn’t.

    A few years ago, I violated the second part when someone here asked why not catch a Falcon 9 booster in a net. Rockets aren’t generally designed to take side loads, easier on the net than catching it tail first, but Starship takes side loads on reentry and free fall.

    SpaceX is different from many other rocket companies, which have focused on greater performance and efficiencies. SpaceX focuses on lower costs and is willing to sacrifice performance and various efficiencies to achieve this goal.

  • Chris

    Edward: I agree. I think Musk and or his organization may be “asking questions” – the right ones and considering all answers. It is this environment and culture that I think he (and his organization) created that is the difference. It’s Musk and more than Musk that he and his team thrive in.

  • ggm

    Here’s an easy way : at the top of the booster, a large (and strong) ring protrudes above the booster a few feet. As it’s hovering near the tower, a swing arm with a big “hook” swings out and hooks the ring. The booster powers down and it left hanging from the hook. That way they don’t need complex structural re-enforcement of the fins. Because the “ring” will be in the center of the booster it will be easy to make it strong.

  • Edward

    I’m sure that the SpaceX team has looked at a wide variety of possible methods to guide the Super Heavy right back onto its launchpad. Since the grid fins already take a lot of load during reentry, they may not need as much beefing up as people imagine, and this may be why that idea is leading the other ideas, right now.

    Since it is so easy to get close to SpaceX’s Boca Chica tests, it will be interesting to watch them experiment and develop their final means of landing Super Heavy. One of the impressive things about SpaceX is its willingness to test to destruction its expensive test articles. This allows them to try radically new hardware, software, techniques, and methods. Being so public about it is also impressive.

    Engineers believe that change is bad — if it works, don’t fix it, because it may not work after the “fix.” For half a century, launch vehicles worked just fine, but SpaceX was founded because Musk learned that the expense of getting to orbit was too great, that the cost was something that was “broken” and needed fixing. Musk didn’t invent this thought, and it was an old thought even when Peter Diamandis created the X-Prize as a way to encourage reduced costs of space access through reusability. Even the Space Shuttle was intended to reduce the cost of access to space, so this was a “broken” factor since the 1960s.

    Unfortunately, the government was virtually the only customer, and they didn’t mind the cost, at least not enough to solve it. The cost of constructing the launch vehicle was the vast majority of the price of the ticket to space. When you let the government be in charge, all you get is what government wants.

    Fortunately, in the 1990s some entrepreneurs decided to solve this problem, but it was SpaceX that finally managed to stay in business long enough to do it, and willing to fail in public enough times to work out the new problems that come with rapid reuse. The model for the final system is the airline industry, in which rocket-expensive aircraft fly their missions (e.g. passenger service), land, refuel, and fly again, sometimes multiple times a day. Imagine the price of a ticket if an airliner had to be thrown away after each flight.

    Rocket Lab is showing us that inexpensive access to space allows and attracts a lot of small companies to do business in space.

    When We the People are in charge, we get what we want. Even when it is audacious and bizarre.

  • pzatchok

    I just came up with a way to move the craft after it has landed of center of the pad.
    With less risk than it now has going from the assembly building out to the pad.

    It would take all day to finish the move though. About a foot an hour in any direction.

  • I will make book, right now, that SpaceX will demonstrate multiple launches to orbit, using the same booster, in a 24-hour period, in less than five years. Probably inside three years. Assuming the political situation doesn’t blow up, and I’m not making book on that.

  • Edward

    Scott Manley uses Kerbal Space Program to help examine this proposed landing method: (9 minutes)

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