SpaceX’s ex­plo­sions go on blooper reel

The Columbus Dispatch - - Not To Be Missed - By Christian Daven­port

SpaceX founder Elon Musk once said that he would mea­sure the suc­cess of his com­pany’s ef­forts to land and re­use rocket boost­ers when it be­came so rou­tine that it was no longer news­wor­thy.

Now, since De­cem­ber 2015, the com­pany has landed a to­tal of 16 rock­ets on ei­ther a land­ing plat­form at sea or its he­li­copter-like land­ing pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Sta­tion in Florida, turn­ing what was once a jaw­drop­ping and un­prece­dented bit of aerial artistry into a some­what ho-hum, to-be­ex­pected ex­er­cise. SpaceX has landed so many rock­ets that it can be easy to for­get just how dif­fi­cult — and ma­jes­tic — the feat ac­tu­ally is.

Per­haps that’s why Musk on Thurs­day morn­ing pre­sented a blooper reel of the com­pany’s many failed at­tempts, a two-minute video, set to a John Philip Sousa march, of ex­plo­sion af­ter fiery ex­plo­sion. There are rock­ets crash­ing into a land­ing plat­form at sea and into the ocean it­self, and one test ve­hi­cle that went awry and ex­ploded in midair. Each one is a re­minder of how dif­fi­cult, and revo­lu­tion­ary, the achieve­ment ac­tu­ally is.

Since its found­ing in 2002, SpaceX’s goal has been to sig­nif­i­cantly lower the cost of space travel, mak­ing des­ti­na­tions such as Mars achiev­able.

One of the best ways to do that, the com­pany fig­ured, was to stop throw­ing away the first stages of its rock­ets. Tra­di­tion­ally, rock­ets’ first stages would boost its pay­load to or­bit, then sep­a­rate and fall back to­ward Earth, dis­ap­pear­ing into the ocean, never to be used again.

To Musk, that never made sense — like throw­ing away an air­plane af­ter each flight, as he has said. First stages, or boost­ers, are the most ex­pen­sive part of the rocket. It’s where the ma­jor­ity of the en­gines are found — in the case of SpaceX’s Fal­con 9 rocket, there are nine en­gines in that first stage.

Pulling off the land­ing, how­ever, is not easy. The booster could be trav­el­ing nearly 4,000 mph be­fore its en­gines shut off. Then, if land­ing on land, it flips around and light its en­gines again to per­form a “boost­back burn” to send the rocket back to Cape Canaveral, guided by GPS. As the rocket en­ters the at­mos­phere, the en­gines light again, for a “re-en­try burn,” be­fore light­ing one more time as the rocket touches down softly.

By land­ing the first stage and us­ing it over again, SpaceX fig­ures to lower the cost of space­flight. But as SpaceX’s video shows, it was a dif­fi­cult and painful path. Each fail­ure, though, re­sulted in new data for the com­pany’s en­gi­neers to study, mak­ing tweaks to the rocket’s soft­ware and the com­plex al­go­rithms used to safely land the booster.

The fact that the com­pany can now re­lease the video — re­veal­ing sev­eral clips of new footage — shows just how far the com­pany has come.


This im­age from a video posted by SpaceX shows one of the un­suc­cess­ful land­ings of the com­pany’s or­bital rocket boost­ers. SpaceX chief Elon Musk can af­ford to poke fun at his early, pi­o­neer­ing ef­forts at rocket re­cy­cling, now that his pri­vate com­pany...

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