The discussion over Falcon 9 failure and its hydraulic system involved many points over difficulties of pumping the liquid, reuse of the fluid as fuel, nomenclature etc.

What I missed was one crucial point: What's the benefit of using gas-pressurized hydraulic fluid instead of making the system pneumatic in the first place? It seems using gas pressurization beats all benefits of hydraulic over pneumatic - the incompressible fluid vs compressible gas - when the fluid can still back up and compress the pressurization gas.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't understand your last sentence. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbes
    Dec 21, 2015 at 10:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Hobbes: One of most common problems with hydraulic systems is air entrainment - a serious problem thwarting efficiency of the system as the compressibility of gas creates a far greater play between hydraulically bound elements (you floor the brake pedal and the pressure can't overcome the strength of brake's return springs). In the gas-pressurized system gas entrainment is an inherent property of the system. $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Dec 21, 2015 at 10:45
  • $\begingroup$ If you use a bladder to separate the gas from the hydraulic fluid, a gas-pressurized hydraulic system has no issues with gas bubbles. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbes
    Dec 21, 2015 at 12:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Hobbes: Except for that one huge bubble just past the bladder. There's nothing stopping the fluid from backing up and pushing the bladder back. $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Dec 21, 2015 at 12:31
  • $\begingroup$ That is an issue if the object being moved by the hydraulic cylinder requires more force than the hydraulic system can supply. But that's a condition you have to avoid anyway. For the F9 system, they'd only run into this if one of the grid fins seized up. In normal operation, you only need to worry about air bubbles between the control valve and the hydraulic cylinder. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbes
    Dec 21, 2015 at 12:48

1 Answer 1


The hydraulic fluid used to steer the fins is actually rocket fuel. After performing the function of steering the fins, the fuel drains into the main tanks to be burned by the engines.

This setup saves the weight of a hydraulic pump and dedicated fluid. Since the fins are useless at low airspeeds, i.e. at final landing, nitrogen (cold gas) thrusters are used instead at that stage. At this point, all the remaining hydraulic fluid can be dumped into the fuel tank, so the fuel budget is in fact constant no matter how much fin control was needed and no additional weight for a dedicated hydraulic fluid was needed.

Arguably, the fins could have been electrically controlled. However, that would require batteries and electric motors, which are more finicky than hydraulic motors.


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