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An article from 2007 made the following statement:

SpaceX is in many ways the exact opposite of Kistler. It's run by Internet wunderkind Elon Musk, does almost all of its work in-house with a staff of young engineers not tainted by experience. It envisions a simple float-back booster (similar to Von Braun's classic 1952 Ferry Rocket) not burdened with weighty flyback hardware.

If my understanding is correct, "weighty flyback hardware" is exactly what SpaceX is working on. So it seems that the approach changed since the publishing of that article.

More specifically, what had the company been planning before they went with the flyback route? Parachutes? Airbags?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

SpaceX's initial plan for re usability was that it would be a lot easier than it turned out to be. They initially had parachute equipment on the first couple of Falcon 9 launches, and they found that the first stage never survived the reentry to the atmosphere. There is a shot I remember from the first or second Falcon 9 launch of a recovery team in SCUBA gear, holding a structure built to cradle and float the first stage in the water. But I cannot find the image, darn you Google!

After which they gave up on that approach and morphed into the current one, which is to use three engines above the upper atmosphere to slow down enough to survive reentry based on the data they learned from the first few flights. Then a single engine for the final approach to the surface.

The interesting question is how much the landing legs, which appear to have aero surfaces on the bottom, will contribute to 'flying' the stage to a landing.

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An article from 2007 …

That was a ridiculously biased and rather ignorant article.

The SpaceX reusability goal has always been to bring the launch vehicles back to Earth by relighting after separation and then using controlled descent to bring them back to Earth. Whether that qualifies as "not burdened with weighty flyback hardware" -- that's up to you. SpaceX has recently come close to attaining that first goal of bringing the first stage back to Earth.

Whether SpaceX does achieve it's goal of reusability is a bit secondary in this regard. They have achieved NASA's primary goal with regard to the COTS program. Contrary to the predictions of that article, both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences have been successful in launching vehicles that berthed with the ISS. Even more importantly, these two companies are placing significant downward pressures on that other Borg-like, cost-plus-fixed-fee launch contractor to reduce its costs. If those old-style companies want to play the same game as SpaceX and Orbital, great. The more the merrier. I don't care if launch providers use big dumb boosters that aren't reusable boosters so long as they are cheap big dumb boosters that aren't reusable.

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In that context, the phrase weighty flyback hardware is implying a Space Shuttle or the RocketPlane mentioned in the article.

That sort of wehicle will be launched to a complete orbit, do its job and return to earth. SpaceX is not doing that. Falcon 9 rocket only launches a small portion of the rocket to the orbit, compared to previously mentioned vehicles( at least in size and somewhat in mass ). The Falcon first stage doesn't reach orbital velocity an as such doesn't fit in the same category as the in vehicles I mentioned in the first paragraph. It also doesn't fit by category as it is a basically just a booster, while the other two are the operating vehicles.

Of course you can also call the Falcon first stage a weighty flyback hardware, but I doubt the author was implying that.

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I read it as the author using the Von Braun Ferry Rocket as an example of a "good" float-back approach. In that proposed rocket, there are 3 sets of wings, and 3 stages to orbit. The modern SpaceX is looking at a 3 stage approach, but each with a powered precision landing. I suppose that could be what he was talking about. I hadn't considered a full orbital spaceplane as his counter-example. –  AlanSE Mar 7 at 1:52

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