A SpaceX Solstice: Rocketry is Reborn in Historic Landing

History Credit SpaceX

Credit SpaceX

December 21st, 2015.

It came on a night which was perhaps uniquely appropriate.

Celebrated by people and cultures around the planet for a stretch of time which predates the written word, the winter solstice marks the longest night and the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.

More than a curiosity of the calendar, or the start of a winter which may have already arrived in some years, or still could be weeks away in others, the winter solstice has for eons marked an annual turning point in the human experience, a victory light over dark at a moment where life, death and rebirth are all in precarious balance.

All those elements were in play at Cape Canaveral on the evening of December 21st, 2015 where SpaceX was hoping to mount a successful return to flight six months after an unexpected failure over those same skies temporarily grounded the rocket, the company, and all those plans for extending human life beyond the planet which gave it birth.

After delaying the launch of 11 Orbcomm OG-2 satellites from Sunday to Monday in order to allow more time for analyzing the results of a Friday test fire, and as founder Elon Musk pointed out, to improve the odds of a first stage landing attempt. SpaceX was finally ready to put its ambitions to the test. The countdown proceeded flawlessly, which was in itself no small feat for a booster loaded with densified liquid oxygen chilled to within a few degrees of its freezing point. In what could be a preview of a”gas and go” future for rocketry, LOX loading began only 30 minutes before ignition, rather than the customary 3.5 hours. The reason for the change was a simple one, to prevent the propellant from warming beyond the desired threshold in the comparatively balmy Florida air.

With the global space community watching via an upgraded webcast featuring an event timeline across the bottom of the screen and bumper music by Test Shot Starfish, and numerous cuts to the raucous crowd gathered at its Hawthorne headquarters,  the Falcon 9 roared to life precisely on time at 8:29 PM ET. Ascending for the first time with all 9 Merlin 1-D engines operating at full power, the booster quickly cleared the launch tower, climbing into the night sky and into the pages of history.

Ten minutes after liftoff, and following six months of exhaustive testing, re-testing and testing again to uncover the source of the June 28th explosion that is still labelled somewhat disturbingly as “most probable cause,” all of that work and precaution paid off in one of the most audacious feats of the space age, and a comeback for the ages.

To begin with, and to make a point which is almost certain to be overlooked regardless of how many times it is made; the radically upgraded Falcon 9 successfully delivered its payload of 11 dishwasher sized satellites to low Earth orbit. Well after word came that the first stage was back on solid ground, Orbcomm confirmed that all 11 satellites had checked in, deploying without incident.

A company is only as good as its customers believe it is, and in this case SpaceX rewarded Orbcomm, an early customer which has stuck with the firm since the days of Falcon 1, with a much needed payoff for that loyalty and a literal relaunch of its machine to machine business. It also gained a place in history, and it is one which others may soon seek to follow for some very sound business reasons.

When the 20th Falcon 9 first stage came down from the sky on a pillar of fire Monday evening, it changed the space age in a number of ways, some of which will take time to become clear. What is instantly apparent however, is that SpaceX has now gained an insight into its craft of rocket building and an advantage which no other manufacturer can meet, or even hope to, for years to come.

A recoverable rocket is a valuable thing for a number of reasons, but foremost among them is the fact it can, and finally will, provide invaluable data into how much margin remains after undergoing the trial by fire which marks every launch.

Other rockets have come back to Earth of course; the Space Shuttle, the DC-X, the X-15 rocket plane which earned its pilots astronaut’s wings, and most recently Blue Origin suborbital booster which returned to land at Jeff Bezos’ west Texas ranch. None of those however, achieved what SpaceX did on Monday evening. For the first time in history, an orbital launch vehicle’s complete first stage was recovered safely and fully intact, landing under its power.

Slow motion capture There and back again Elon Mus

Slow motion capture, There and Back Again
Elon Musk

Skeptics who dismissed SpaceX’s pursuit of reusability and told the world a decade ago that Elon Musk “didn’t know what he didn’t know” overlooked one critical fact. Musk and his company of 350 people probably knew that, but they were were committed to filling in those blank spaces not through powerpoints and conference presentations, but through experience gained. Thus it was that after two efforts of recovering the Falcon 9 first stage by parachute, on its first two launches no less, the company had already learned that the atmospheric re-entry environment for a returning booster was simply too violent to undertake without direct management.

Following three more flights with the original version of the Falcon 9 in which it decided to forego the parachutes but improve the data return instead, SpaceX was ready to apply those lessons with a booster designed for the job, the new Falcon 9 V1.1. On its very first launch, the CASSIOPE flight out of Vandenberg in 2013, the redesigned booster was able to demonstrate much of that control, descending vertically under power until it was just above the Pacific Ocean, but exhibiting an axial rotation which clearly required correction. Subsequent flights saw the improvement of cold gas thrusters, the necessary addition of landing legs which provide their own stability, and finally the hypersonic grid fins.

The addition of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship in 2014 brought all of those elements together in an ocean landing campaign which suddenly looks a little different in the light of a new day. When the first attempt came to ruin as the grid fins ran out of hydraulic fluid in the final seconds, it was time to increase the reservoir beyond any chance of a repeat event. A second attempt conducted aboard a now repaired ASDS came even closer, tilting over at the last possible second.

Had the CRS-7 mission not ended in disaster instead,  June 28th, 2014 might have been the date SpaceX recovered its stage for the first time. On that day, favorable wind and sea conditions, as well as improved ocean stability of the barge itself all suggested that the down range landing attempt might finally work. While that honor now falls to the very appropriately named Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral, the experience gained last night will substantially improve the odds of future attempts at sea when they are required.

Sitting on the concrete this morning is tangible, undeniable proof that the space age has changed. How much remains to be determined, and some of those critics who originally derided SpaceX will continue to cling to the belief that even if a booster can be brought back, it cannot be re-flown economically, if it can be re-launched at all. One of those is Stephan Israel, CEO of Europe’s Ariancespace, who expressed his doubts just this morning. Others reside much closer to home. One person who knows full well that it can be done is Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos, whose quick twitter finger produced an all too snarky and widely lambasted post which he now probably regrets.


For the deniers however, it is a false hope. While Cape Canaveral took centerstage last night, SpaceX’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas has been where much of the real work has taken place through testing, testing and more testing. Simply put, last night’s landing would not have taken place if SpaceX wasn’t absolutely sure the Merlin 1-D engine can be flown again and again.

There will no doubt be more lessons to learn, and likely some more bumps along the way, but there is also no doubt. A new day has dawned, the seasons have changed and the cycle begins anew.

And yes, light scored one hell of a victory over dark.

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6 Comments on "A SpaceX Solstice: Rocketry is Reborn in Historic Landing"

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  1. Dave Huntsman says:

    Both Bezos and Musk – two individuals, one of them an immigrant – are the only reason the future of American space launch has not continued its long spiral into irrelevance, that it had been put into by Boeing/Lockheed/USAF/NASA (I’m a long-term NASA engineer). We rightly celebrate their achievements – hell, I could barely get to sleep last night! – and hope they are but a taste of things to come; but we also need to look with clear eyes at the reasons our uncompetitive industry had become without those two.

    Both NASA, and USAF, need basic reform, of what they do, and how they go about doing it in the space arena, if they are to be part again of an ever-expanding, ever-innovating space technology base and ecosystem that serves our country, our economy, and Earth. The continued cuts in the space tech R&D budget – including in Congress’s recently-passed budget – need to see a reversal in the future, if future Bezos’ and Musks are to have anything to build on.

  2. PK Sink says:

    Great piece as usual. Thanks.

  3. Nestos says:

    It’s time to write a second book, Stewart !

  4. Mikael Bohman says:

    Thank you for this.

    I am grateful to have been able to witness this milestone in rocketry.

  5. Keith Pickering says:

    Unmentioned will be the ramifications of this on the launch market, which will be earth-shattering. With even limited re-unsability, SpaceX should be able to reach the magical price point of “half off” the competition. This will have two effects: first, it will expand the market (with SpaceX getting nearly all the increase), and second, it will drive more and more customers to SpaceX. Some launchers, particularly nationalized ones, will survive on government contracts, but it’s hard to see how anyone can stop SpaceX from grabbing a dominating share of the commercial launch market.

    Expect a big, big shakeout in about two or three years. This is a total game-changer.

  6. Gary Warburton says:

    It is obvious that innovation in the space industry had become moribund. I guess in part we have the shuttle to thank for that if it had been something like the size of the Dream Chaser maybe things would have been different but I`m glad Elon has done what he did. I`ve noticed that things have been quiet over at ULA and ESA lately want to bet there are some intense board meetings happening in both camps. Yes but it is all good for space development. The Japanese are already talking about making their rockets cheaper wanna bet there`ll soon be a reusable Toyota Rocket soon.

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