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  • 12.21.15

Watch SpaceX’s Many Misses–And Today’s Crucial Success

Elon Musk’s company is having a very good night.

Affordable space travel just got a whole lot closer.

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Today, Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully landed its Falcon 9 rocket, the first time in five tries that the company was able to bring the first stage of its launch vehicle back to Earth. The four previous attempts all ended in crashes, some in spectacular fashion.

According to SpaceX, being able to land a rocket after launch–and then be able to use it again–is an essential step forward in making space missions of all kinds more affordable.

“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred,” Musk says on SpaceX’s website. “A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.”

Today’s launch and landing was watched by people all over the world live and in real time. But the successful mission was the result of years of work on the part of the countless people at SpaceX who engineered and operated its rockets.

This is how SpaceX got there.

Grasshopper

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Before SpaceX could launch the Falcon 9 into space and attempt to bring its first stage back to Earth, it had to be sure it could actually land the first stage itself. That’s why Elon Musk’s company worked hard on the launch, and return to Earth of that first stage, known as Grasshopper.

On March 7, 2013, it did just that, landing the rocket safely after a short flight to an altitude of 262.8 feet, where it hovered for 34 seconds before returning to the ground below. It repeated the test several more times, getting more ambitious in altitude and duration each time.

The Grasshopper tests “were important to ensure that the final velocity attenuation algorithms worked properly,” SpaceX wrote on its site. “In particular, we needed to prove out a hard slew maneuver and a high acceleration landing. The first is important because the rocket is still moving sideways before landing, so we need to zero out lateral velocity, and the second because landing slowly takes a lot more propellant than landing fast. Landing at 2 g’s is 10X more efficient than landing at 1.1 g’s, because anything below 1 doesn’t count.”

Two days after that first Grasshopper test, discussing future potential missions to Mars at SXSW, Musk acknowledged he’d like to travel to the Red Planet and that he’s aware he might not come back. He just wants to be sure the rocket technology is advanced enough to get him there successfully. “I’ve said I want to die on Mars,” Musk told the SXSW keynote audience. “Just not on impact.”

Crash On Impact

Having succeeded at returning Grasshopper to Earth, SpaceX set out to launch the Falcon 9 and bring its first stage back to terra firma. The rocket finally took to the skies on January 10 after multiple delays had kept it earthbound. Even SpaceX gave itself only a 50% chance of success, and the company wasn’t wrong: Although the launch went off just as planned, the first stage crashed on impact as it tried to touch down on an at-sea robotic drone ship known as Just Read the Instructions. The result was a fabulous explosion, which Musk himself shared on Vine just a few days later.

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Close, But No Cigar

On February 11, SpaceX tried again, launching a mission called DSCOVR. This time, as before, the Falcon 9 shot into space as planned, with a perfect vehicle separation. But when the first stage came back to Earth, attempting to land on the drone ship, it once again failed. This time, as Musk tweeted, it hit the ocean “nicely vertical,” but 10 meters away from the at-sea platform.

“Slower Than Expected Throttle Valve Response”

SpaceX’s next shot at proving it could make its rocket reusable came on April 14. But once again, despite a perfect launch and separation, the first stage crashed, this time in a fiery explosion when it smashed into the drone ship.

In a tweet offering the first explanation for the crash, Musk said that the “cause of [the] hard rocket landing [was] confirmed as [being] due to slower than expected throttle valve response.” The result, of course, was more waiting, and more questions about whether SpaceX could ever achieve its goal.

Just Three Minutes Of Flight

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The company’s fourth shot at glory came on June 28. This time, though, we never got a chance to find out if the rocket could land properly. This time, disaster struck just three minutes after launch when the entire Falcon 9 exploded in mid-air.

An investigation revealed that the explosion was caused by a strut that failed in the Falcon 9’s upper stage liquid oxygen tank, Musk later explained.

The catastrophic failure of the mission led SpaceX to put its next launches on hold for a time as the company worked to ensure the problem leading to the explosion would not be repeated in the future.

“The Rarest Of Beasts”

Even as the world waited for SpaceX to finally land the Falcon 9’s first stage, other famous industrialists had their own designs on getting the glory for such a feat.

On November 23, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin, shocked everyone by launching and then landing its New Shepard space vehicle. Bezos used the opportunity of the successful launch and landing to post his first-ever tweet, and took an oh-so-obvious dig at Musk and SpaceX by touting the “rarest of beasts – a used rocket.” He added that, “Controlled landing [is] not easy, but done right, [it] can look easy.”

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Musk was not amused. He took to Twitter shortly thereafter to remind Bezos of SpaceX’s successful Grasshopper launches. “Jeff maybe unaware SpaceX suborbital [vertical takeoff and landing] flight began [in] 2013,” Musk tweeted.

“Stage One Has Landed”

Today, all that work, all those months of waiting, and all those questions about whether SpaceX could finish the job were finally put to rest. With what seemed like thousands of SpaceX employees cheering wildly in the background, the company’s fifth attempt at landing the Falcon 9 first stage was the one we’ll always remember.

Just 10 minutes after launch, the first stage came gently back to Earth, landing at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the same location where it had shot into space just minutes earlier.

SpaceX had, finally, gotten what it wanted: a “reusable” rocket. Affordable space missions are that much closer.

Bezos, of course, couldn’t resist the temptation to take another dig at Musk and SpaceX. In just his fifth-ever tweet, Bezos wrote, “Congrats @SpaceX on landing Falcon’s suborbital booster stage. Welcome to the club!”

About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications.

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