Still Awaiting AF Approval, SpaceX to Try Rocket Landing


Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the start-up rocket-maker known as SpaceX and headed by billionaire Elon Musk, hasn’t yet received certification to launch U.S. military and spy satellites.

But that hasn’t stopped it from looking for ways to further drive down the launch costs by making rockets reusable.

The company, based outside Los Angeles, this weekend will for the first time attempt to land its Falcon 9 rocket on an unmanned ship in the Atlantic Ocean after launching from Cape Canaveral on a NASA mission to resupply the International Space Station.

Liftoff is scheduled 4:47 a.m. local time Saturday. The mission was previously scheduled for Tuesday, but called off after a computer detected an unrelated anomaly on the booster’s upper-stage actuator during countdown.

The odds of successfully landing the first-stage booster on the moving target aren’t that great — Musk put them at about 50-50. But the company already came¬†close to accomplishing the feat in August, when the section returned from space, entered the atmosphere and soft-landed in the water.

Stabilizing the 14-story rocket for reentry “is like trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a wind storm,” is how SpaceX describes it.

If successful, it’s hard to imagine what else the company would have to do to prove to the Air Force that it can launch national-security payloads. The service recently pushed back the date it expects to approve the company for such missions to mid-2015 — a six-month delay from its original date.

The reason for the longer time line wasn’t clear. As Andrea Shalal of Reuters reported:

“It said SpaceX had met 80 percent of the jointly agreed criteria for certification, and was demonstrating the ability to innovate and resolve outstanding issues.”

SpaceX, which is also working with NASA to develop a spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts, wants to compete against United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture of aerospace giants — Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. — to launch military satellites as part of the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, program.

SpaceX will face added pressure to perform after an unmanned rocket made by Orbital Sciences Corp., another commercial space firm trying to compete for a bigger piece of the military market, exploded shortly after liftoff in Virginia. The Antares booster was using Soviet-era engines that had been refurbished.

UPDATE: SpaceX’s daring landing attempt wasn’t succesful. The rocket hit the barge but came in too fast and exploded. “Close but no cigar this time,” Musk tweeted afterward.


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Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Peter

    I think we are seeing the start of the REAL space age. If we can get away from the old-school of only getting back around 10% of what we send up then maybe things can start to become properly viable.

    • hull

      Idiots’ space age, to be exact.

  • stephen russell

    awesome, & use barge anyplace alone, be huge. More jobs worldwide.

  • oblatt22

    Its funny the people thank that spaceX will reduce costs and somehow revive the US space industry. As if some sort of capitalist market principal is occurring LOL.

    All musk wants is to get a foot in the cartel. In10 years SpaceX will be a junior partner of the cartel. The price will stay the same, uncompetitive, dependent on government subsidized work. And people will ask what ever happened.

  • Muttling

    What is the fuel costs for a missile with rocket landing capability? That’s a lot more fuel used and it massively increases the launch weight of the missile which requires even more fuel. Put the recoverable/ reusable parts and put them on a parachute recoverable portion of the missile, let the rest drop.

    • Ziv

      Actually bringing the first stage back doesn’t use very much fuel at all. They built the vanes onto the first stage to slow it down and control its orientation as it returns to the surface. The vanes are very light but do the job of controlling the first stage without using fuel until the last minute. I believe I have read that they use a little less than 10% more fuel on a first stage that they will be recovering. So the max payload of the Falcon 9 goes down by a small amount, but the cost to launch it drops significantly.

    • blight_

      What’s the wear and tear on reusing a first stage? Is it cost-effective to do a thorough reconditioning instead of building anew each time? I was under the impression that reconditioning of the shuttle boosters was almost as expensive as building them for single use. Perhaps the economics has changed, or SpaceX is doing something differently to make recovery and re-use cost-effective?

      • Dunking a rocket in sea water can’t be good, and probably adds tot he cost to refurbish significantly. It’s good to ask these questions, but the answers are – nobody knows. In 3 weeks, when SpaceX tries this again, and if they are successful, then we can glean some data. Until then it’s all naysaying and specualtuion

        • blight_

          I imagine that dropping the boosters into the water was viewed as less damaging than dropping a booster onto land. Even with parachutes, the landing was probably quite hard.

          But investing in the ability to land in a controlled fashion…

  • Franklin

    Elon is a bit secretive. I know he will get it right eventually, but good crash photos are almost as good as a perfect landing. After all nobody was hurt and the barge didn’t sink. I am sure he was shooting with something better than an instamatic in multiple wavelengths. My only beef is that Nasa could have done this fifty years ago. Think were we could have been today, and I’ll be dead before all the good stuff starts happening. We had nuclear propulsion plans ready to go the day we landed on the moon. Don’t forget the Pilgrim Observer!

  • Max

    Why not land it on LAND instead of something that’s moving around? Seems like a better idea.

    • Curt

      Because the rocket is launched over the water for safety, unless you have a conveniently situated, uninhabited island nearby, there is no land to be found.

    • Ziv

      Liability. Land is going to come later/

    • rtsy

      Overall distance. Most of the Earth’s surface is water, so if you can land there you don’t have to spend the extra fuel to get back over land.

  • john burns

    While I applaud any new players in the space program(s), what I belive should be the next goal is a space elevator to put up material. there are certainly lots of challenges, but after seeing what competition has done for robotics( Grand Challenges), i belive the challenges are no more insurmountable than any other challenge. the problem is not tech but cultural. from investors to contractors, what have we always done….rockets. space tehers are fighting this same battle. they are not a universal fix but in the “rocket boy club” they get no focus, because it’s not what we do. we will dick around untill someone else gets it first then we fight patents and politics from then on. its just to safe from a money point of view to cast another rocket idea around in the hopes of getting some govt cheese money later.

    • Peter

      I’m curious: How do you actually ‘install’ a space elevator? I get the spin of the earth, and the weightlessness of space. But what holds it up while building it?
      With it’s length it must weight tons to reach a decent atmosphere. And gravity isn’t that friendly. I’m assuming it’s built in space one end is propelled to a higher atmosphere at the same time the other end lowers to an earth-bound tether?

      And who is it going to land on if it fails? :) I think I saw that part in “Forward unto Dawn”.

  • Darrell

    Did anyone come to work today? This Happened Saturday…

  • Carbon nanotubes and graphene are both strong enough to build a space elevator with, but we don’t have the engineering knowhow to make them any longer than a few millimeters, and that’s just a bit too short.