This Sunday (June 28th) Space Exploration (SpaceX) will try for the third time to land one of its returning rockets onto a floating landing stage.
The rocket will have helped boost the delivery to the International Space Station of routine supplies within its Dragon capsule, but the big test then follows when SpaceX attempts to land the Falcon-9 rocket back onto the landing stage.
Success would mean that SpaceX’s founder has cracked the most elusive of rocket challenges: bringing a rocket home for refurbishing and re-use. The Americans got around the problem by creating the Space Shuttle, but that was a massively expensive – and risky – beast of burden.
If SpaceX can bring back the expensive rocket’s powerful first stage, then re-use become not only possible but practical. SpaceX attempted the task in January, which was a complete failure and again in April which was judged either a partial success or a partial failure depending whether you are a glass half-full, or half empty type of person. Either way, one of the rocket’s deployed ‘legs’ collapsed under the force of the landing and the rocket was lost. But in Musk’s eyes this was near to success!
Musk’s landing platform is not large (30,000 sq ft, and which he describes as “an autonomous spaceport drone ship”), and painted on its deck is a cheeky message saying ‘Just Read the Instructions’ to the totally unmanned rocket! If nothing else, Musk has a sense of humour.
But the exercise – which one day he will get right – is critical to his plan to bring the costs of launching satellites down. He claims, with some justification, that throwing away these hugely expensive rockets is not only wasteful but unnecessary. This Sunday’s test will see if he is right.