SpaceX: To reusability…and beyond?

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Liftoff for Falcon 9 [IMG: SpaceX]

SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 launch, possibly as early as March 29th, will mark a major milestone for the company. Carrying the Luxembourg owned SES-10 communications satellite, it will be the first to reuse – and hopefully recover for a second time – a previously flown Falcon 9 core.

Since the first successful Falcon 9 landing on December 21st 2015, SpaceX have repeatedly demonstrated the ability to recover their first stages to both downrange droneship and Return To Launch Site pad landings. But while there can be no doubting how technically impressive this capability is, it will ultimately count for nothing unless they can refurbish and re-fly the recovered cores repeatedly, amortising their development costs and sustaining reduced launch costs for their customers.

SpaceX had originally hoped that this flight would take place in 2016, but that was before the launch pad explosion of a Falcon 9 carrying the AMOS-6 satellite during a static-fire test on September 1st, 2016. Since Falcon’s return to flight in January this year, the company are pushing hard to regain lost ground across a number of fronts.
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Cluster’s Last Stand: The Saturn I/1B

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A Chrysler advert highlighting their involvement with the Saturn programme [IMG: Chrysler Corporation]

Few sights could be more synonymous with the space age optimism of the 1960s than the mighty Saturn V. Built to take Americans to the Moon at the culmination of a politically fuelled space race, it also represented the ultimate expression of von Braun’s long held desire to use rocketry to reach other worlds. But while the Saturn V is deservedly honoured for its historic role, much of the work to make this success possible was carried out during the development of its smaller, less well remembered predecessor – the Saturn I.

Often consigned to the footnotes of space history the Saturn I story began well before Apollo, the programme that provided its defining role. Saturn I’s early development spans the military power struggles of the pre-NASA age and indeed its development helped bring key capabilities to the nascent space agency that remain important and controversial to this day. Although understandably overshadowed by the mighty Saturn V, for a while it looked like the Saturn I and subsequent variants might become among the most important workhorses of America’s expansion into space, a flexible and ubiquitous launcher with a life way beyond the lunar landings. Unfortunately, as with so many of the ambitious plans of the 1960s, the Saturn I never fully realised this potential.
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An Aerospace Roadtrip

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NASA Shuttle Carrier Aircraft N911NA on display in Palmdale [IMG: Chris Petty]
Recently I returned from a trip to California. While this was a family vacation, it did give me the chance to visit some fantastic space and aviation related attractions reflecting the state’s rich aerospace heritage. Here’s a quick roundup of what I saw…
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The final steps and legacy: The North American X-15 – Part 3

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The proposed Delta-Wing conversion was just one of many X-15 follow-on projects discussed during the programme [IMG: NASA]
When NASA pilot Bill Dana brought the X-15 to a halt on Rogers dry lake on October 24th 1968, it marked the end of the research plane’s flying career. At the time there were hopes that a final 200th flight could be made before the end of the year, but following a number of cancellations and aborts it wasn’t to be.

The X-15 programme drew to a close just as the world’s attention turned to the Moon with Apollo 8’s successful lunar orbital flight and the push towards a landing during 1969 to meet Kennedy’s goal.
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Thoughtful Courage or Fearful Safety? Thoughts inspired by ‘Safe Is Not An Option’ by Rand Simberg

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The international crew of Columbia’s final flight STS-107 [IMG: NASA]
Having recently read Safe Is Not An Option, I started out intending to write a review of the book but decided to expand that out to capture some thoughts on the subject at greater length.

Firstly I think its worth noting the book’s full title  –  Safe Is Not An Option: Overcoming The Futile Obsession With Getting Everyone Back Alive That Is Killing Our Expansion Into Space. So a pretty uncompromising introduction right there on the cover, but any serious discussion on this subject needs to confront the subject head on and challenge our preconceptions and Simberg certainly doesn’t dodge that challenge. So why the need for this seemingly iconoclastic viewpoint?
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The SLS: A layman’s view

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The changing face of the SLS – will the rocket be as flexible as the 3D rendering? [IMG: NASA]
The Space Launch System. The World’s most powerful rocket, getting ready to blast humanity into deep space and on our long awaited journey to Mars (or should I say #JourneyToMarsTM). Star of so many CGI animations and NASA presentations that I’ve lost count. 

You’ve changed a bit since we first met – you used to look a lot more like the Saturn V, now you’ve shed the paint job and you look a lot more like a bunch of stuff from the Shuttle, but more of that later. See, the thing is I really, really want to see humanity go further into space and take a journey to Mars. I want to see a lander burrow under the ice and swim in the oceans of Europa, I want an incredibly advanced laboratory swooping through the plumes of Enceladus, I want a sub cruising the methane oceans of Titan – I guess I just want us to go places and do things. But SLS? I have my doubts.
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Launch. Land. Repeat: A history of the VTVL Rocket – Part 3

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“I know how to get the U.S. permanently into space. Write me a check for a billion dollars, give me a letter of credit for a second billion I probably won’t have to spend, and get out of the way. I’ll take the money and vanish into the Mojave desert, China Lake for preference, Edwards Air Force Base if I must; and in about four years I’ll have a Single Stage to Orbit savable as well as recoverable and reusable spacecraft capable of putting about ten thousand pounds into orbit at costs of about five times the cost of the fuel the flight takes.”

This quote from and sci-fi author and aerospace industry veteran Jerry Pournelle dates to the early days of what would later become the DC-X. Pournelle was one of many space enthusiasts actively lobbying for a small SSTO project with minimal organisational oversight. As seen in Part 2, the DC-X project found it’s ‘Skunk Works’ home in the Strategic Defence Initiative Organisation (SDIO), but Pournelle’s words turned out to be prophetic – they would just take a while to happen and the innovators behind these projects would be able to write their own billion dollar cheques…
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