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SpaceX Successfully Soft-Landed Booster Rocket in the Atlantic (mashable.com)
306 points by typpo on April 25, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 136 comments

Equally large news from today's press conference at the National Press Club - SpaceX is taking on ULA (united launch alliance, a consortium of incumbent players in the market) and the "block buy" allocation of military / national-security launches to ULA.

Here's their handout, from one of the reporters there:


Playing politics a bit, Elon's claiming a ~ 75% reduction in launch costs by using Falcon 9 rockets instead of the block buys allocated to ULA, so he's filing a lawsuit to give his company access to this market. He even goes into details of how some of ULA's engines are manufactured in Russia, and given the festivities in the Ukraine our legislators would rather be less dependent on Russia for space access. He even whets the politicians' appetites with his blurb at the bottom describing how $1B per year could instead pay for operating a fleet of A-10's, or 15 Marine Corps battalions, or 12 F-16 squadrons ... or it could instead pay for purchasing 10 F-35's, 2 LCS's, or 50 UH-60 Black Hawks.

Politicians (and Beltway reporters) definitely respond to money dangled in front of their face.

Here's how he arrives at the ~75% reduction, btw:

• ULA annual cost: $3.0-3.5B

• ULA cost per launch: ~$460M

• Falcon 9 cost: "under $100M"

This forum has tons of live-blog style commentary leading up to and during the press conference.



(edited to clarify about ULA engine sourcing; thanks physcab)

ULA uses engines manufactured from many different sources. Some rockets fly with engines manufactured in Russia, and as far as I know these aren't necessarily new engines but re-used from the 60's. But other programs use engines manufactured in the US. Atlas V rockets have engines made by Aerojet Rocketdyne which is based in Sacramento California. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlas_V

Also to match costs, you have to look at the payloads and the distance to space.

Falcon 9 - $56M - 4.8 metric tons to GTO

Falcon 9H - $135M - 21 metric tons to GTO

Atlas IV/V - $160M - 7 metric tons to GTO or 21 tonnes to LEO

Ariane V - $200M - ? metric tons to GTO


These other companies justify the higher price because they have a better track record. If you're a military customer and your payload needs to get to space, you probably will choose the "safe" bet. Its a catch-22. SpaceX needs more flights to prove their record, but they can't get more flights because of their record.

All Atlas V first-stage engines (RD-180) are manufactured in Russia. That the second stage engines are made in the US doesn't change the fact that you're dependent on Russian supply.

In response to your edits:

>but they can't get more flights because of their record

The Air Force required 3 successful flights in the exact configuration the Air Force would fly. SpaceX provided the "record" as stipulated by the Air Force, which nevertheless committed to a large block-buy contract with ULA. By the Air Force's own standards, the billion-dollar subsidy is not necessary for their needs-to-get-to-space payloads.

Also, "the other companies" is just a single supplier, ULA.

I've heard it's a common practice in defense contracts to carefully write the requirements such that you are in effect pre-selecting your desired vendor, while providing the appearance of impartiality and neutrality.

Yes, it's called "wiring" a contract. When I worked at a company that sold specialized processors to the government we ran into that all the time. Usually it was something defensible on its face, at least, like software compatibility with a previous piece of hardware.

But sometimes we would see unimaginative stuff like a specification of the LED layout on the front panel or very specific weight restrictions that happened to fall between our hardware and the preferred vendor.

In the government's defense, though, the system is set up to combat this tendency, at least for smaller contracts. When I was on the other side (having left the vendor to work for our civil service customer) we would routinely get pointed questions from the purchasing people regarding this or that line of the RFP - was it really required, or were we trying to wire the contract?

That's common I think in just about every government procurement deal. In higher ed we would choose the service or software we wanted to buy. then write the procurement request to fit that product. And in many cases the vendors that deal with Higher ed and government contracts, provide guidance with writing the request.

It's common in telecoms too. We get RFPs that are pretty much lifted from the spec page of a competitors (incumbent) product.

>you're dependent on Russian supply

and my understanding that this supply is limited to the what had already been manufactured long time ago. Beside the inventory issues, one can easy imagine Putin saying "bad Americans, no more gas ... err... rocket engines for you"

RD-180 are being manufactured continuously last ~20 years. All new, not manufactured long time ago.

NK-33 - from which AJ-26 are made - aren't manufactured today. It's a question if the manufacturing will restart. There are a few tens of them in US. Orbital Sciences has that question in the middle of their table, or close to it.

Russian-American relationships in space trace back to at least 1975, deep Cold War. We're not at that state of affairs just yet. As somebody mentioned on The Space Review, ISS is a front-runner for Nobel peace prize, so let's not jump the gun too early. It doesn't seem to be too desirable for Putin to close that particular relationship.

There is a successor NK-33A engine being produced for Russia's own Soyuz-2-1v. http://www.uk-odk.ru/eng/presscenter/odk_news/?ELEMENT_ID=20... http://www.samspace.ru/news/press_relizy/4228/ (in Russian)

Unfortunately engine itself is not produced. Those are all modifications of existing NK-33.

What you wrote about Atlas V is a bit misleading. It uses an American engine for the upper stage, but the whole issue is about the Russian built RD-180 engines that power the first and largest stage. The other ULA rocket, the Delta IV, does use all American engines but the Delta IV is less capable and sees far less use.

This catch-22 applies across the government-aerospace interface surface.

I used to intern for a company trying to break into aerospace software---not hardware, just tracking and modeling. At the time, they faced a nearly-vertical climb into the market to get around the big names in aerospace; they couldn't sell to them directly (the people involved in the purchasing decisions were the people who would be getting downsized if the software proved to be as good as advertised) and they couldn't sell to the Air Force (it's basically nearly impossible to get into an AF contract cycle if you haven't been in an AF contract cycle).

Their break-in point was the US Army; at the time, the Army had a relatively small air asset capability (relative to the other branches), but a sudden need to know what was up with the GPS constellation AT ALL TIMES relative to their land and air deployments. The company was able to get face-time with the Army reps because the regular aerospace names wanted to sell them software that came at a price-point that usually bundled a shiny new fighter jet or stealth asset with it, and they weren't willing to drop their prices because they didn't want their regular Air Force customers asking "Why is the Army getting this software for a tenth of the up-charge you quoted us when we closed this whole contract last year?"

Sadly, that was years ago and I have no idea of the shape of the market now. My only other data point is the portrayal of the aerospace industry in the movie _The Aviator_ and the observation that it hadn't changed much between then and the early-21st century. ;)

Funny you should mention ... that nasaspaceflight forum has commenters saying the same thing:

I guarantee there will be a congressional committee hearing about this very soon. Reminds me of what Howard Hughes had to go through to break Pan American Airways' legal designation as the United States' sole international carrier. Most portray Elon M. as a the new "Steve Jobs"; wrong I live in Nevada and an early study was of Howard Hughes. Elon M. is a modern day Howard Hughes. Once you understand that, things fall into place.

You mix up everything, and many posters do that further down.

These are the relevant rockets and their first stage engines that fly from US soil:

  1) ULA Delta IV: US made RS-68 (new).
  2) ULA Atlas V: Russian made RD-180 (new). 
  3) SpaceX Falcon 9: US made Merlin-1 (new).
  4) Orbital Sciences Antares: Soviet made NK-33 (decades old, now refurbished in USA).

Only NK-33 modified into AJ-26 used on Antares rockets is manufactured in early 1970-s. RD-180 was designed in 1990-s, about the same time as RS-68, the engine from Delta-IV first stage.

Regarding payloads, it depends on what you're launching. If your satellite is 4 tons, then you can directly compare the price of a Falcon 9 and an Atlas, for example. It doesn't get noticeably cheaper to fly a rocket at less than full payload. Obviously, if you're launching something that exceeds Falcon's maximum payload then it's not an option, but given their campaign, there must be a lot of lighter payloads going up as part of this program.

Musk mentioned GPS satellites as one of the kinds of payloads he wanted to bid for. It looks like they fall well within the capacity of the Falcon 9. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GPS_Block_IIF

Good point. I should have said "some of" as a qualifier.

I watched a senate hearing where Elon Musk squares off with the ULA. It's awesome. One great quote is where the ULA says Space X can't handle the missions. Elon responds. If our rockets are good enough for NASA, they are good enough for the Department of Defense.


That was an interesting watch, even as a foreigner. The ULA representative did everything he could to defend their contract - a 'good' politicians as it seems. He responded pretty well to Feinstein's chart I have to say - a chart with cost per ton in orbit would have been much more informative and I couldn't deduct from her numbers whether that has actually gone up significantly. Musk's response to Shelby's remark on a partial SpaceX mission failure was very witty - "according to ULA's standard's this mission was perfect" - he seems to be very good at thinking on the foot.

Yeah, that chart is painful. Talking about absolute dollars with no basis is not productive.

I suspect if you asked a DoD gal if it was more critical that, say, a military commsat got to orbit than something that measures solar flares, she'd beg to differ with Elon.

Yeah we all would expect them to say that. Everyone's baby is the cutest. Everyone's problems are the most important.

It's not equally important news.

Suing the government for mismanagement of a procuration process is a short-term path to selling more of the same.

Demonstrating landing ability, then refueling and launching within a day is a medium-term path to completely changing space flight.

[added] When I say short-term vs medium-term, I mean it wrt strategy. I wouldn't bet on the short-term issue being solved first...

ULA testified to congress that they have a 2 year supply of RD-180 engines (not sure of the exact number).

The RD-180 argument is definitely weaker. Cost & reusability are much stronger arguments for canceling/recompeting the ULA block buys.

That said, I can't wait until we have genuine competition in the space launch sector, especially with lightning fast turn times. It would be a genuine revolution in space access—even if money were no object, there's no one in history that has had the technology to support continual launches to orbit.

Wow, he really knows how to push the right buttons... I suppose it helps to have a company you built with almost unfair price/technical advantages behind you.

Yes it was so easy

? I didn't say it was easy,..

pointing out an accomplishment as "unfair" without further elaboration serves to diminish it

I just meant unfair as in they have extreme advantages that almost no one else can replicate. That's an impressive accomplishment, I don't think it diminishes what they've done at all.

Musk said a normal Falcon 9 launch is $60 million. I'm not sure exactly what's involved with "Government-driven costs in addition to the cost of launch services" but I'd hazard a guess that they're not $40 million per launch. Could end up being a nicely profitable sale for SpaceX if they can pull it off.

Musk estimates that Air Force "mission assurance" requirements would cost $30 million, hence a $90 million ("under $100 million") price-tag.

Do you happen to know just what is involved there? I'm not too familiar with this stuff, and I'm curious.

Elon Musk explains it in this answer to Senator Shelby. The whole committe hearing is interesting, but your specific question is answered at 53:02 in the video, which I link here:


It's poorly-defined, but includes a wide array of reviews, audits, inspections, etc.

See PDF page 17 of http://www.gao.gov/assets/520/511460.pdf

... especially if, as he said, he can reduce his current launch costs by 30% by re-using rockets.

It seems likely the the USAF would specify first-run rockets for the best chance of success, so the USAF would not see a cost reduction unless spacex were to re-purchase the recovered booster or similar (or offered a credit that equated to the same).

The USAF buys a launch, not the rocket itself. The recovered stages belong to SpaceX.

True, but then in that situation SpaceX would just not give the 30% cost reduction for the launch. The 30% figure he mentioned was after giving the "under $100M" price point.

Space programs should probably not be the first to sanction in such situations. I doubt Putin would be too hurt about it anyway. If there are sanctions, they should be on other markets first.

When we'll be a "space race", I doubt it will matter much whether those sent into space are Americans, or Russians or Chinese or Germans.


While I agree that it is definitely best to use domestic launchers and not have to rely on the Russians for engines or astronaut launch, I don't think that "Fuck the Russians" is really a great expression of that. Since Apollo-Soyuz, spaceflight has been something that our two countries can productively collaborate on, despite our (at times, vast) political differences.

Maintaining good relations between NASA and the RKA is valuable for everybody. SpaceX/RKA relations are less important however.


This is a bad Hacker News comment: both politically inflammatory and a glib throwaway. That makes it a bad comment squared, not even counting its implicit Godwinism.

Your "Fuck the Russians" comment upthread was another bad one. It derailed the conversation into an off-topic, indignant subthread. These are the thistle patches of HN.

Please don't post any more comments like these to Hacker News.

Calling for NASA to stop working with Roscosmos and the ISS over Putin is nuts. Space research and exploration is more than petty flag waving.

Somehow I think taking over Crimea is more than petty flag waving to the people who live there. I'd ask for more empathy for those whose lives may be irrevocably damaged by the actions of the Russian Head of State.

Taking over Crimea is awful and completely predictable, as is the land corridor from Crimea to Russia that will be opened to the north. Russia is scared of losing control of the naval base it has held there for over a century.

However the collaboration with the ISS is something that forces communication and trust on a joint project at a high level. It is not just that it is important for space research, it is even more important for soft diplomacy. It forces the governments into situations where they have to talk about something other than sabre rattling on a regular basis.

To be fair, most of people living there are Russians, and they seem to be happy to live in Russia.

Of course the way Russia took Crimea wasn't very good, and was just to secure naval base, but they did it without bloodshed, which wouldn't be possible if people there wanted to stay with Ukraine.

That was a karma 4 acccount and this is much later, but...

The main problem imho is that the last time destabilization and military [threat] was used to steal land areas around Europe, it was by guys in mustasches... And the motivation was similar -- "protect" Russi... German speaking populations.

And right now the same methods are used in another area. Just like the 1930s, too.

That second area will hardly be the last, if it works again. "Peace in our time" failed last time...

As an European, this is just scary and everything really needs to be done to stop this before there is another big war.

Having empathy doesn't mean we should fall into the politician's fallacy. Unless you can demonstrate how would stopping the collaboration actually help the Crimeans, it's nothing but demagogy.

"Seems like the wrong time to be sending hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kremlin" -- Elon Musk

He's certainly not making friends in Russia today. That said, I feel like the ISS is too important to be left to the whims of the US Congress. IIRC NASA plans to deorbit the American part of it within the next decade, while Russia keeps the rest aloft and turns it into a waystation for planetary missions.

Not many people know that he initially (pre-SpaceX) tried to buy a couple decommissioned ICBMs to send a plant to Mars. He was ready to write the check, and the Russians spiked the price at the last minute.

So he's probably got a grudge or two.

I've heard of Russian ICBM story, but I haven't heard of this part before:

> the Russians spiked the price at the last minute

What's the source for this part?

    They had two more trips scheduled to Russia; now Ressi 
    decided, as he says, "I didn't like dealing with Russians," 
    and told Musk he wasn't going back. Musk went anyway. On 
    the second trip, Musk brought his wife, Justine — "I think 
    that's the trip when the lead Russian designer started 
    spitting at us," Cantrell says — and on the third and final 
    trip he brought his money. He was ready to buy three Russian 
    ICBMs for $21 million when the Russians told him that no, 
    they meant $21 million for one. "They taunted him," Cantrell 
    says. "They said, 'Oh, little boy, you don't have the money?' 
    I said, 'Well, that's that.' I was sitting behind him on the 
    flight back to London when he looked at me over the seat and 
    said, 'I think we can build a rocket ourselves.'"

It's a great article.

I doubt it's a grudge. Accusing your competitor of sending money to the Kremlin in a time when the U.S.-Russia relationship isn't exactly great is simply a well-executed political jab.

What is your source on that? According to a page on the NASA site from Oct 13. The Station is expected be operational through at least 2028.

I wouldn't be so hasty. By the time NASA has its own launch capability to the ISS again, Putin may have retired.

Well, F* nationalists. Earth is too important to be left to the whims of crazies like you.

As always, there is a middle ground between "rah rah <country>" and "one world!".

The U.S. government, especially its intelligence agencies, have many potentially grave flaws for a democracy. Putin and the Russian government, however, are decidedly worse leaders for freedom, and no friend of the US government or its citizens. Therefore, it's not unreasonable to look to be less dependent on their honesty, integrity and goodwill.

So stop being so F*ing judgmental.

- Successful soft landing in the Atlantic

- Seas were too rough for a quick recovery

- Rocket subsequently destroyed by wave action

- Will attempt recovery of the next Falcon 9 launch

- A Falcon 9 recovered on land could be re-used the next day (!)

- SpaceX is lobbying to allow private competition for National Security launches (eg GPS satellites)

My jaw dropped reading that the rocket could be re-used the next day. That seems like an enormous leap forward for space flight.

Rockets are built to be pretty durable machines (obviously). The environment they operate in outside of the atmosphere is harsher in many ways.

Two big issues with sea landing: transport (tug, crane, huge truck, etc.), and corrosion/contamination from saltwater.

They'll still need to verify all systems and components before a second launch, but that's way easier to do when the vehicle is sitting empty on the pad next to all your people and equipment.

This was an experiment. The goal is to land on terra firma, not [mare incognitum].

For Falcon 9 though, the first stage contributes so much of the dV that it is not particularly feasible to land it at the launch site - by the time it separates, it's moving at several kilometers per second away from the launch site towards the horizon. That opens up the question of where the launch/landing site pair is bound to be. A ship-based landing system, such as a semisubmersible oil drilling rig (only ~$1B used!) with a landing pad built onto it, would seem to be close to optimal for the F9 specifically.

The Falcon Heavy's 2 side boosters, on the other hand, will separate much earlier in the flight - they are likely to be much more practical to land at the launch site, particularly for direct geosynchronous payloads that allow a lot more vertical / near-vertical burn time in relation to horizontal.

Citation? Usually the flight plan is to increase altitude (less atmospheric drag) before increasing angular velocity to full orbit.

Elon's been pretty explicit that F9 stage 1 will land back on the pad, or very close by.

See this thread for estimates on the dV of the different stages of these launch platforms for a full-capacity payload: http://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=30685.0;all

It costs about 8km/s to get into low orbit from an atmosphere-less Earth. From our planet it costs about 9.4-1.0km/s because of aerodynamic and gravity losses. Those aerodynamic and gravity costs, and the Hohmann Transfer from groundlevel to orbit (trivial for LEO, more for GTO) are the only parts of the equation one can address while burning vertically to stay over the launch site.

Assuming 10, If the first stage only has to contribute 2km/s, it can address aerodynamic and gravity losses (while thrusting vertically), and then leave the second stage to boost for the horizon and achieve full orbit all on its own.

At 4-5km/s first stage contribution, it doesn't look like this is possible unless the payload is very undersized, leaving the second stage with enough dV to go from 'rising out of the upper atmosphere vertically' to 'circular orbit' all on its own.

The mass is a free variable, a greater vertical component is practical in GTO (and I don't have the modelling skills to say how much), and the second stage may launch fully fueled for F9R contra to the existing pattern, so I can't be 100% sure whether F9R will be a practical return-to-launchsite option for lightweight GTO payloads.

They'll still need to verify all systems and components before a second launch

That. You need to re-qualify the engine after each launch. The cost of labour far exceeds the cost of materials, you need to strip and re-build the thing, and you ask yourself just how much money you can save through re-using the first stage. I don't think it's much.

On traditional launch vehicles, yes. Shuttle was definitely this way. And I'm sure SpaceX will initially do a complete disassemble and inspection to gather more data about the wear and tear.

But the Merlin engines have been designed from the start to be reusable and dependably reignitable, whether at sea level or upper atmosphere. They're pretty amazing-- essentially the pinnacle of +50 years of engine design. Tom Mueller is a huge badass. :) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merlin_(rocket_engine)

And check out that bad boy roar: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wkdReoxGHG8

I don't have a link on hand, but Elon has said multiple times that the majority cost of the Falcon-9 is the raw material. One of the reasons they've been able to drop the price significantly is by using more efficient manufacturing techniques, requiring less material and creating less waste. (e.g. stir-friction welding)

It's also worth noting that Falcon-9 can still complete a mission with one (and perhaps two?) engine failures, which gives quite a more comfortable margin of error. There's a big difference between "perfect" and "near perfect" when it comes to engineering these things. ;)

> I don't think it's much.

SpaceX disagrees. They expect to cut the cost of launch by 1 order of magnitude


> you need to strip and re-build the thing

That's how politically-designed boondoggles like the shuttle work. It's not inevitable, if you actually spend the engineering effort on reliability and repeatability.

If NASA operated an airline, they would probably be tearing down and rebuilding every jet engine after every flight, and a ticket would cost $100,000.

I said this in another thread, but part of the issue is failure intolerance.

Sure - for human payloads I'd want to be damn sure my process is good, like, hundreds to thousands of missions deep before I trusted it.

But that's totally unnecessary for an unmanned payload! If the cost of launch drops enough, you can fully justify launching 2x the payloads if you expect maybe 1 in 10 failures due to the mode of launch.

I suspect it's possible to do a damn site better then that, but for NASA its never been an option. If it's reusable, they can't let a mission fail because they'll only get punished and funded according to the failures, even if they specced everything expecting 1 mission to possibly not go off right.

This is true for a sub-set of unmanned payloads.

Space-X is great for the sub-set of things that don't require insurance, and don't therefore need to use corner-case mil-spec stuff with the corner case pricing.

For others, the cost of losing a $1-2B bird on top of a $100m/cheap rocket is shitty math. Nobody is going to insure the top of it, so ultimately the "waste" is akin to a form of insurance.

Everybody knows this already, so I'm not sure how sympathetic a hearing it is going to get. It will be great PR though to hopefully spurn <designs> that fit the new framework...and thus expand the market for space-x and hopefully limit the superflous use of corner-case technology for mundane/run-of the mill applications (at the tax payer's expense).

Right, but part of the reason we launch hugely expensive satellites is because launching a rocket is hugely expensive.

That calculus changes if your rocket launches start to get cheaper. It changes by a lot if your rocket launches have reasonable but predictable failure modes - which is something you get from volume.

As it is, rocket launches are relatively infrequent and expensive - which means its impossible to figure out the amortization of costs, and its not worth building a 10m satellite if your launch costs 100m (since if you can raise the latter, you can almost certainly get more for a better satellite too).

^^^ Yes, this is exactly the 'white space' for Space-X.

The $2B satellite is equally absurd, and only costs that much for the same reasons that the launch costs $400M. Everything is bespoke and produced in the maximal number of congressional districts, with no meaningful competitive pressure to drive prices downward.

And the two expenses buoy each other: if launches were inexpensive, you could spend a lot less on fault-tolerance in the payloads, because you could just launch a lot more payloads or even support on-orbit repair infrastructure.

You really think SpaceX loads aren't insured? This seems impossible.

If you look at previous launches of new designs you will see that the first few flights are invariably not commercial, they carry research spacecraft. These are the qualification flights; until the vehicle has a good track record the satellite operator won't find anyone to insure their bird.

Now the Falcon 9 is an all-new design, and their track record isn't all that shiny - there is a history of missing the target orbit by a fairly significant margin. It's going to be downvoted, but it had to be said.

I wouldn't be surprised if this flight went without insurance.

Missing the target orbit by a significant margin on all their 9 flights?

Or having their failsafe system activated after one of their engines blew up on a single mission, causing them to be in position to release the small secondary payload (which the customer did not particularly need in free flight apparently) slightly late, in a zone in which NASA had veto rights on due to proximity to the ISS. Rather than adjusting their orbit to deposit the secondary payload in the proper orbit, as is technologically feasible, NASA exercised their contractual veto and told them to drop it early.

SpaceX appear to have gone with failure tolerance. Their first stage is practically a raid array.

Teardown and rebuild doesn't increase your safety margins, they reduce it. If I rebuilt my Toyota every 10k miles I'd have a lot more breakdowns.

The Merlin engine was designed from the beginning to be re-useable. They don't have to be "stripped and rebuilt" after each launch. They have already fired engines on the test stand for multiple mission durations with no problems.

Unlike NASA's adventures with the space shuttle, SpaceX is a for-profit business with a goal of making money. They wouldn't be pursuing reusability if they didn't think it would increase their ability to make a profit.

So, have you done more analysis on this than SpaceX has?

You should send them this post of yours so they stop wasting all that money! I bet they never thought of what you said.

I would think inspecting, cleaning, and assembling the stack would take days. So next-day is probably Musk hyperbole.

People constantly say this about him, yet he consistently comes through on what he says. I tend to favor trusting what he says about things like this now.

Is "the ocean was wavy" really a justifiable reason for losing the rocket? Surely sea conditions are something they'd take into account when planning and executing the mission.

You clearly have not been at sea, close to the water. A cylindrical object, without a sea anchor, in moderately rough seas, would naturally turn sideways to the waves and be destroyed very quickly in the breaking waves.

I don't know whether SpaceX has fitted their boosters with sea anchors yet, but I wouldn't be surprised to see this addition after the present loss. In windy conditions, a sea anchor provides some drag and keeps the boat (or booster) pointed perpendicular to the waves, thereby minimizing the force expended on the object.

> Surely sea conditions are something they'd take into account when planning and executing the mission.

Ocean experts are constantly preparing for extreme conditions, then discovering they didn't prepare for conditions that were extreme enough.


How much weight would be such an anchor to hold down something as large as a rocket? Wouldn't you have to launch that into space, too?

A sea anchor is a pretty lightweight device whose purpose is to create some drag against the water when the wind blows. It can take the shape of a small parachute, but in the water, at the end of a long line. The idea is when the wind blows, endangering the booster, the sea anchor will force the booster to point directly into the wind, thus minimizing wave damage.

> Wouldn't you have to launch that into space, too?

Yes, which is definitely a drawback -- every ounce that isn't payload is regarded as a serious waste, because it all has to be launched at great cost (the ratio of payload to fuel is often greater than ten to one).

On the other hand, the SpaceX people report that the booster was destroyed, so this well-tested idea is very likely in their minds right now.

Sea anchor, i.e. something like a parachute that drags through the water, so it can be made of light materials.

Probably not going to happen since the ultimate goal is return to launch site.

Yes, that's the goal, a descent to land instead of water. One hopes SpaceX will be granted permission to move ahead with that scheme instead of having to perform more tests into water.

I'm sure there are safety concerns that have prevented this until now. The successful retro-file to zero velocity over water may help resolve those concerns.

The mission was to launch the satellite they were being paid to launch. Recovery of the rocket was a test they were running on the side. The mission justifiably got priority.

It's strange how many people seem unable to understand this. SpaceX got a bunch of testing essentially for free. NASA was gracious to allow it. They could have easily said, "We're paying you to launch stuff to ISS, keep those crazy landing legs far away from our payload."

Sea conditions were too rough for recovery. Their options were to wait for better weather, annoying the customer and possibly losing the launch (they had one more launch window after the one they used before the payload went to another launch company), or go for it and still accomplish a great deal of testing even though they probably couldn't recover the rocket. Total no-brainer to choose the second option.

NASA isn't stupid, they know that if SpaceX manages to get rocket reusability they'll save a lot of money which would otherwise be spent on rocket launches.

Of course. But in the short term, they have a bunch of cargo that needs to get to the ISS soon, and they weren't in a position to tolerate many more delays.

It goes beyond NASA as well. If SpaceX can demonstrate that their reusability testing doesn't impact the launch, that increases the odds that their other customers will allow it on their launches too.

On the other hand, it probably just means their budget will be cut by a similar amount. NASA isn't a for profit company. It's tax payer funded. No guarantees they really benefit much from saving money.

Is "recover an un-manned rocket" really a justifiable reason for potentially losing lives at sea?

Not really. Which may explain why (according to one report) the Coast Guard refused to go out after the booster.

Well Mashable said that the Coast Guard refused to go out. So it was probably wavy slightly above it is awesome for surfing.

Just to be clear, it is not their goal to reuse rockets that are soft-landed in the ocean. This particular attempt was to prove that they could make the rocket slow to zero meters/sec at the surface of the ocean, with it upright. Which they did.

Their next attempt will be to target a smaller radius, to prove their aiming accuracy. Finally, after a couple more ocean landings (with possible recovery for analysis purposes), they will attempt to land on dry ground. To do this, they need to prove they can set down within a 1-mile radius. But they believe they should have the same precision of a helicopter.

After this, they are aiming for same-day reusability.

Rockets are surprisingly fragile when empty. Most of their strength is compressive, and only in one direction, and only when filled with compressed gas.

I'm not sure about strength being mostly compressive -- for example, Apollo 9's Saturn V withstood a longitudinal oscillation with an amplitude of 12g[1] and it wasn't deemed to be dangerous enough to cause an abort.

I'd expect maintaining pressure in the tanks not to be a significant problem, though it would need to be addressed -- pressure needs to be maintained reasonably constant during the whole burn, and it's done by admitting helium from compressed helium tanks. If the fuel/oxidizer tanks don't leak too much, the same mechanism could be used after the rocket has landed.

[1] http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/2008001...

It's certainly possible that they have a level of wave action that they can handle, and this landing's wave conditions exceeded that. I'd imagine it's hard to predict what the ocean will be like far enough in advance to design a rocket from the ground up to support heavier wave action. They were on NASA's timeline for the launch, not their own.

The launch window was being dictated by factors other than the landing weather and storms in the Atlantic are a justifiable reason for losing pretty much anything you care to put in them.

hmm, an armchair rocket scientist... don't think i've seen that one before.

How many thousands (millions?) of people play Kerbal Space Program? Obviously that qualifies as a rocket scientist/

(1) Telsa CEO Elon Musk announced a major breakthrough in spaceflight on Friday

(2) Musk revealed the potentially "revolutionary" news on Friday during a hastily organized press conference

(3) "What SpaceX has done thus far is evolutionary, not revolutionary," Musk said.

(4) "If we can recover the booster stage, the chance is there for revolutionary."

What was announded today was a critical first step. But there is nothing seemingly new in the press conference report, beyond what Elon had tweeted on the day of the soft-landing itself. The only new news is that the vehicle was lost, which doesn't really seem to be a "breakthrough" in the context of Musk's own explanation.

The bigger step here will be getting the recovery because the need to confirm empirically what kind of shape the engineered pieces come back in. Many problemes like the icing on the shuttle (which de-laminated and caused projectile damage) are not going to be discovered without such an inspection.

I am glad I read this article because it alerted me to the existence of NASA's robot astronaut named Robonaut [0].

[0] http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/robonaut.html

This may be a dumb question, but why are they test landing in the ocean instead of on land? Flight paths preclude it?

The seas are huge and empty. Keep in mind that this was just an experiment which could easily have gone wrong. You probably don't want to have to explain why you made a rocket-shaped hole in somebody's roof ;)

Also: Chances are higher that you're able to recover useful wreckage (like data loggers) when you crash into water.

Safety. Previous attempts at a soft landing failed, with the firsr stage crashing into the ocean. Once they can be sure of a soft landing, my bet is they'll move to land.

Safety and ease. Landing in the ocean they don't have to boost back which saves them fuel (so it's essentially trivial to just add a test onto an existing launch at no significant payload penalty), plus they get to run through most of the flight profile (especially the most important parts) without having any potential of hitting anything on land and with the expectation that the vehicle is going to be destroyed anyway. They have several (at least 4) more flights within the next year with sufficient payload margin to do more of these tests so they can spend time gaining confidence (at almost zero cost to SpaceX) and exploring the boost back trajectory (coming closer to land) before actually attempting a landing.

They can't assume the test will work. (The first attempt, at the Cassiope launch, didn't.) Crashes at sea are a lot less consequential than crashes on land.

(Flight paths are not an issue; they eventually expect to recover boosters from other space station cargo runs, which will follow the same trajectory.)

It is absurd that a citizen must pay to view the decision from his previous case against Boeing.


Yes I am sure that this is how PACER works and furthermore I am also sure that the RECAP project does not have anything for this case. Did you notice the link you provided is merely a list of 71 case related documents? Do you know how many of those 71 documents have nothing listed in the "upload date" column?

At the NPC conference Elon confirmed a choppy video feed from the booster.


Is it SpaceX's intention at some point to forgo the launch tower and launch directly off of the landing legs grasshopper style? I realize it's not really necessary, but it might make it easier to get a rocket off of Mars instead of having to build a tower. Although, presumably if you can refine rocket fuel on Mars, maybe building a launch tower is no big deal.

Anyways, kudos again to Musk and SpaceX.

I don't know about the need for a "tower", but the Falcon 9 launch sequence includes firing up all the engines and making sure they're running fine. Same too for the SSMEs as I recall. That's one of the great advantages of liquid fuel rockets, you can turn them off. Ditto the mighty Saturn V, they started "8.9 seconds" before launch, 300 milliseconds apart.

So you need some serious hardware to hold it down till release, and to deal with all that exhaust.

SSMEs ignited 6.67s before launch. From memory, a lot of aborted launches were due to some sensor reading an error with one of the SSMEs.

The strongback does a lot more than legs ever would: resistance to winds when awaiting the launch window, fueling, data connections, etc. Not to mention you need some sort of tower to lift the rocket upright after payload integration and servicing -- unless you do vertical integration, which they will need to do to win USAF contracts. But then you need a crane, anyway.

And eventually, you'll need a way to get the people in it.

Genuinely curious, why would USAF (or anyone) need vertical integration?

These requirements seem to apply mostly to "national security" payloads (e.g., spysats), so the exact nature of the requirements is classified. It's easy to come up with a plausible guess about what the requirements might be (optics going out of alignment if you tip the spysat on its side?), but those who know don't say --- and those willing to venture a guess, like me, are showing they don't actually know.

Probably not. The tower is used for horizontal transport and erection to vertical, for loading power and propellant to all stages of the rocket up until a few minutes before ignition, and for protection against strong winds. And, perhaps, loading last minute cargo (like people).

So you kind of have to have it in the current configuration. And since you have to use a prepared range and pad, it's not that much additional infrastructure.

One could perhaps design such a rocket, with storable propellants (liquid oxygen boils off, which is why they keep supplying it for as long as possible) and ground-level power connections. And on Mars the wind isn't really a problem. But that's a different rocket.

I don't believe the landing legs are rated to support a fully fueled vehicle; when the vehicle returns to land, it'll be bone dry after its final burn to stop it above the ground.

Wait ... did Elon mention building a spaceport in Brownsville, TX? I can see how that would work well for GEO and GTO launches. That's an interesting breakdown for launch manifests:

- FL, 39a: the NASA launches

- FL, 40a: the DoD launches

- TX: the GEO launches

- CA: the polar launches (Vandenberg)

It is interesting, that by bringing the lawsuit, Elon is essentially saying "hey! how come the block buy deal magically appeared only now that a viable competitor exists?"

Yep, they've been seeking environmental approvals for a little while. They've leased a site off shore on an island in the Laguna Madre.


Where would the booster have landed?

What if the Russian tug boat, that was chilling outside of Florida, stole the booster? That would be an interesting turn of events.

"Telsa" - and I stopped reading...

Edit: For the record, www.telsamotors.com redirects to www.teslamotors.com

Ironic, since Musk stated explicitly he wouldn't answer any Tesla questions.


because it's "Tesla"

He probably thought it was still r/technology

Yes, it just goes to show the horrid journalism that gets vomited out online in attempt to generate traffic...journalists don't even bother proof reading.

Bloggers who write for free and contribute to HN have more pride, and care more about their articles than most professional journalists.

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