Image Credit : Elon Musk
Before it was lost to massive waves roiling the Atlantic Ocean, the Falcon 9 first stage which helped send the DSCOVR spacecraft on its way to deep space Wednesday, sent out a resounding message of its own, the next space age is about to begin.
Even before a Sunday launch scrub due to problems with an Air Force radar tracking system, SpaceX estimated the odds of a successful stage return in what were then ideal conditions as 50/50 at best.
Coming on the heels of the recent January 10 recovery attempt which very nearly succeeded, it initially appeared that SpaceX might be sandbagging. That was, until VP of Mission Assurance Hans Koeinigsmann explained that compared to the last attempt, the demands of the DSCOVR launch would see the Falcon 9 slam back down into the atmosphere with twice the dynamic force of the previous attempt. And even though this rocket would carry a bigger reservoir of hydraulic fluid to operate the four hypersonic grid fins, it would also have less residual fuel for maneuvers.
It was for these two reasons that even before the waves began to build, recovery teams were stationed further away from the Automated Spaceport Drone Ship Just Read the Instructions. The instructions it seems, said to stay away from a descending rocket which might not be able to find its target.
As it turned out however, the Falcon 9 was able to find its target, now an arbitrary spot on the heaving sea rather than the deck of a ship, and indeed came within 30 feet of dead center before the terminating thrust. Given the prevailing conditions, it was quite an accomplishment. It is also highly significant in terms of what it means for the future beyond the next effort.
After SpaceX came within a few seconds of landing on the ASDS during the CRS-5 launch, it was already apparent that the company would be succeeding much sooner than anyone might have imagined. For less demanding launches such as those to LEO, the future was clear even if it wasn’t yet secured. In performing as well as it did in the DSCOVR launch however, the Falcon 9 first stage has demonstrated that it can withstand punishing returns targeting a much longer distance down range.
In short, SpaceX can now realistically project recovering all three cores for the Falcon Heavy, even on the most demanding of flights. Demonstrating re-use is still another matter, but expect that domino to fall surprisingly easy. Quite simply the company would not have been putting so much effort into booster recovery if prior tests in McGregor, Texas did not convince decision makers that if the stage can be landed, it can be re-flown. Again and again.
The takeaway from Wednesday is not simply that Falcon 9-R will work, it is that SpaceX will soon have a fully reusable first stage and a heavy lift rocket which can also be reused in virtually any application, not just the “easy” ones.
SLS, ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for you.