Elon Musk has laid out his plans for recovery and reusability of the first stage of the Falcon 9. SpaceX recover and possibly even reuse the first stage of the Falcon 9 in 2014.
Recovery of the first stage of the Falcon 9 involves a supersonic retro-propulsion with three engines and a second burn involving the center engine that allows the stage to do a precise and controlled landing. These two critical burns for recovery were initiated during the recent mission that lofted the Cassiope satellite into orbit.
All three engines were fired during the first descent burn and the first stage survived re-entry into the atmosphere.
Musk explained at the post flight press conference that this achievement was significant, given that previously SpaceX’s “first stages always essentially exploded upon re-entering the atmosphere due to the extreme forces they encountered.”
The second burn, involving the center engine, was also initiated during the Cassiope mission and was also successful.
However, despite both descent burns being successful, the stage did not achieve a controlled landing. Because the first stage did not have landing gear on this flight to help stabilize it, the stage ended up spinning to a degree that was greater than what could be controlled with the gas thrusters.
Musk explained that the landing gear on the upgraded Falcon 9 does more than just land the first stage, it also acts to stabilize the stage upon descent much like fins do on an aircraft. The spinning of the first stage centrifuged the propellant and caused the stage to run out of propellant before hitting the water.
If you take the Grasshopper tests, where we were able to do a precision takeoff and landing of a Falcon 9 first stage and you combine it with the results from this flight where we were able to successfully transition from vacuum to hypersonic, through supersonic, through transonic and light the engines all the way through and control the stage all the way through.
“We have all the pieces necessary to achieve a full recovery of the boost stage.”
The next recovery attempt for the first stage will be the fourth flight (CRS-3) of this version.”
The second stage recovery is quite similar to the first stage.
SpaceX will attempt the recovery of more first stages after the CRS-3 flight, with Musk indicating that SpaceX’s goal is “to recover the first stage on all CRS flights and really on most flights. The next two flights are somewhat of an exception.
Musk explained that the actual reuse of a recovered first stage could happen as early at the end of 2014 but that it depends on a number of factors.
“In terms of when we actually re-fly the stage, it’s going to depend on what condition the stage is in and obviously getting customers comfortable with that (i.e., with reusing the first stage). So it’s difficult to say when would actually re-fly it. If things go super well then we would be able to re-fly a Falcon 9 stage before the end of next year. That’s our aspiration.”
both the Air Force Range Safety and the FAA which have been quite supportive of their return to launch site landing efforts, Musk added that SpaceX expects to get the required FAA license for a return to site landing. He also explained that the Falcon Heavy will eventually also be able to do return to launch site landings.
“The Falcon Heavy is essentially the Falcon 9 with two additional boost stages as strap on boosters.” For the Falcon Heavy, he added. “once the three boost stages will separate, they will come back and land individually and they will behave just like the Falcon 9 boost stage.
“All three of them will come back hopefully and land on three separate pads and we’ll join them back together for future flight launches.”