Technology

"Welcome Back, Baby!": SpaceX Returns Rocket to Earth

The private spaceflight company brings a reusable booster back from space and sticks the landing.

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Last night SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket into orbit and landed the first stage vertically on a Cape Canaveral pad. It was kind of a big deal. This was a huge success after two previous failures, and CEO Elon Musk was pumped:

The goal of reusability has been a holy grail for private spaceflight industry, since recovering key components of the spacecraft could dramatically bring down the price of getting stuff and people into space. 

Last month, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' company Blue Origin managed a landing as well, another milestone for the industry, though it was a less ambitious project all around, with a smaller craft going slower and returning from a lesser height. 

Before this year, rockets boosters were incredibly expensive feats of engineering that became incredibly expensive garbage as soon as they served their function. Musk and Bezos' obsession with reusability is about the bottom line, bringing down the cost of getting stuff off the surface of the earth is a crucial precondition to all kinds of space-based industries and ventures, such as asteroid mining—though the primary commercial application at the moment is satellites.

In case the whole thing wasn't nerdy enough for you, here's one more tweet from Musk, who seems to have gone full Bilbo: 

And for more, check out Reason TV: "When Can I Buy My Ticket to Outer Space?"

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  1. So Bezos had “a smaller craft going slower and returning from a lesser height,” eh?

    This NSFW video is for you, Bezos!

    1. The author of this article has previously demonstrated profound misunderstanding of the subject matter. Not sure why the author is still assigned to cover that area.

    2. And then Bezos couldn’t keep his fingers to himself and sent out the saddest tweet he could have.

  2. So when Musk becomes history’s first quadrillionaire space magnate can we finally stop shipping him our tax dollars?

    1. Well why are you giving him your tax dollars in the first place?

      1. Don’t want to be shot by armed agents of the Federal Government?

        Rent seeking is just an activity we do together! But the payoff only goes to the select few…

        1. I’m picturing my grandchild, a working stiff Luna-tic miner or drone operator being lectured “You didn’t build that” by a Earther functionary… then she opens the airlock.
          woops

  3. Falcon-NINE. How many Nazguls were there?

    1. Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
      Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
      Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
      One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
      In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
      One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
      One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them,
      In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

      So, yes, nine.

  4. So, when is the mod for KSP which lets me build reusable first stages going to be made?

    1. Is this game of which I had never heard worth $40? Would a 5yo be interested? Will my MBP be capable of running it well?

      these are the questions that try men’s souls.

      1. I got it on sale for $25 and it was worth that to me.

        For a 5yo, I don’t know, it depends on the kid. It does the physics fairly well. It’s newtonian only using patched conics, meaning you don’t get lagrange points or some other even funkier astrophysics tricks, but it’s a solid introduction to the practical mechanics of rocketry and space travel (I have had badly built rockets rip themselves apart during flight).

        If MBP is mac book pro, I also don’t know, I run a high end gaming rig, so I was not concerned.

        It is highly addictive, but it has a steep learning curve (we are talking about rocket science here). The in-game tutorial for getting into orbit was worse than useless (it bugged out on me). But the ‘orbiting basics’ and Transfer orbit (mun shot #1) tutorials were handy. (mun shot #2 is at best an aggregation of all the previous tutorials as it is ‘take off and return to Kerbin from the mun’).

        1. UCS, do you have any experience with Orbiter 2010 (freeware)? Any thoughts on that versus KSP?

          1. This is the first I’ve heard of that I’m afraid. So I can’t compare the two.

      2. My son has KSP, and he plays it all the time. He’s 13. I think it’s over the head of most 5 yos, but it depends on the kid.

        In the game, you get to build shit! You can build serious rockets and aircraft, or you can put together monstrous things that tear themselves apart. There are a bunch of modular components you put together however you want. Plus, there’s an active modding community. It’s cool.

        I have a background in astrodynamics, and the game impresses me. UnCivilServant is right, the physics is simplified, but the main points of orbital dynamics are present. My son has learned the concepts behind raising a perigee of an orbit, or lowering apogee (that you have to do it 180 degrees away at the corresponding apogee/perigee). He’s learned about plane change maneuvers. He has also learned about burns to get you to another body (like the mun!). He’s even learned the basics of rendezvous and docking with another vehicle.

        1. you can put together monstrous things that tear themselves apart

          That reminds me, I have to design the Psycho-11. The Psycho series rockets are basically a fractal design – boosters on boosters until there’s no more room for another stage within itself. They all look like they’re going to rip themselves apart, and you’d have to be crazy to fly one, but so far they’ve been both absurdly stable and impossible to turn. Psycho-5 and Psycho-10 had the best flights so far. (I use more sane designs for my conventional work because they’re cheaper to build)

          1. I looked for pictures of the Psycho-5 or 10 and didn’t find anything. Is it a rocket that is already in KSP, or is it something you shared? I’d like to look at it because those things are fun.

            It sounds a little like something my son put together. He started with a small liquid-fueled core and then started surrounding it with solids. He started with the biggest solids and then got smaller with each new layer. He timed them to all fall away layer by layer. It actually kind of worked, but when it failed, all the boosters separated into a tremendous and beautiful cloud burst display.

            1. I didn’t share them – I just made them ingame. I’m sorry for any confusion This may have caused (I haven’t even figured out if you can share designs between careers on the same install.)

  5. My concern is, can a current 40-something be hopeful of going to space? Or will liability concerns restrict the age of private astronauts to

    1. Do you want to visit LEO or take a short flight above the atmosphere, or do the whole “end your days on Mars” thing Musk talks about?

      1. LEO will do nicely.

        I meant to type less than equal to 35 .

        With my donation money, I vote that Reason enables a LaTeX interpreter in the comments

  6. “Before this year, rockets boosters were incredibly expensive feats of engineering that became incredibly expensive garbage as soon as they served their function”

    That’s not entirely true.

    The solid rocket boosters used on the Space Shuttle were retrieved from the ocean for refurbishment and reuse.

  7. Nice to see Reason covering this. It’s an amazing achievement. Well worth watching the SpaceX video of the event. A lot of people turned out for it, they must have been pretty confident that this time would be the charm. The real breakthrough comes when they fly one of the recovered stages. I wish them luck.

  8. While it’s good that this finally happened, and it is a big achievement, they have done it once out 3 tries. Also, they had a rocket blow up this year too, in case people are forgetting about that (ISS would have liked the IDA to come up).

    So to say this is the nail in the coffin is really jumping the gun.

    Spaceflight is hard. Accidents will happen. How will it be dealt when one of these “reusable” rockets explode?

    1. Says a person who obviously has an interest in the status quo. SAFETY! Look out! Something bad might happen with these new-fangled things!

  9. How will it be dealt when one of these “reusable” rockets explode?
    Same as when any other rocket explodes, they analyze the failure, find what went wrong and fix it.

    1. More importantly, if it’s private, with private money, who cares, except for the people who had money on the line? The experts will figure it out without Congressional Committees hovering over their shoulders.

  10. I read that this time they landed it on land, the other attempts were on barges.

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