About That Falcon First Stage, Elon Musk at the National Press Club

Although today’s SpaceX press conference was held primarily to announce a lawsuit filed to stop the Air Force/ULA block buy,  it also shed quite a bit more light onto last Friday’s soft landing of the Falcon 9 first stage. To sum it up, in the words of Chief Brody “You’re going to need a bigger boat.”

Just after it boosted the second stage on its way to a preliminary orbit and release of the CRS-3 Dragon spacecraft on its way to the International Space Station, the Falcon 9 first stage successfully re-ignited 3 Merlin 1-D engines and began a controlled re-entry and descent over the Atlantic ocean. Unfortunately it was headed right into a storm which was severe enough to dissuade any potential recovery vessels from being in the area.  Even the Coast Guard declined to go out.  Undeterred, the Falcon 9 deployed its four carbon fiber landing legs, and aided by nitrogen thrusters firing at twice the intensity of those used on the previous recovery attempt, the CASSIOPE launch in late 2013, the booster achieved a zero roll wait.

Powered by the single, center mounted engine, the booster came to a virtual stop just above the ocean surface, a feat verified by a combination of sensors spread across the first stage. After that, it was into the drink, and a pitching sea which likely soon broke open the propellant tanks, sending the main structure to the bottom.

Recovery vessels, arriving two days late, did recover a large piece of the interstage adapter as well as a segment of one landing leg. SpaceX also received video, which will soon be released on its website, but Musk cautioned the quality is poor and he is hoping that a crowd sourced effort might clean it up a bit.

Basically, the booster did all that was asked of it, and SpaceX is looking towards the next launch, which will be the Orbcomm mission in May, to try again. This time however, with the Falcon not chasing the 51.6 degree inclined orbit of ISS, the first stage landing zone should be much closer to Cape Canaveral. In any case, Musk advised, the company will make sure to have much larger vessels on hand.

The goal remains to recover a first stage on land by the end of this year, and hopefully re-fly it on a demonstration launch next year. Along those lines, the SpaceX founder said Air Force range control has been very helpful, and has identified several possible landing sites at the Cape. He also observed that ultimately the landing area should be no larger than that required by a helicopter, and the booster should be capable of re-flight the same day.

Although SpaceX will likely avoid such a step altogether, Musk also suggested that a water recovered stage could possible re-flown after several months refurbishment.



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