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SpaceX to Test Soft-Landing First Stage Post-Mission in March

by Bruce Perens at Quality: 

Lifting a payload into orbit is "astronomically" expensive because the rocket is used up in one flight. Think of what it would cost if you had to buy a new car for every drive you took! That's what we're doing with rockets today.

The Space Shuttle was one approach to solving this problem, but only returned the orbiter, expending its outer tank and solid boosters. Complications of the orbiter made it more expensive than conventional rockets.

SpaceX intends to address this problem by soft-landing the Falcon's two boosters and the Dragon vehicle after use. They've scheduled an over-water propulsive return test of the Falcon 9 first stage as part of March's Space Station Commercial Re-Supply 3 flight (CRS-3). There will probably also be a re-fire of the second stage to initiate controlled re-entry. The extent planned for the second-stage maneuver is unknown at this time.

The first stage may be fitted with carbon-fiber, gas-pressurized landing legs. The first stage landing dynamics have been tested in the many Grasshopper flights. SpaceX will attempt to perform as if soft-landing the first stage, but over water, eventually dropping the booster into the ocean for recovery.

SpaceX first tried the soft-landing maneuver in September, 2013, bringing the first stage close to the ocean's surface in controlled rocket descent before an uncontrolled roll. The second stage was also refired, but this maneuver was aborted due to a transition beyond expected parameters.

This video shows the concept first and second-stage soft-landing.
 

I wonder if it will become much cheaper

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I actually watched the video and I have my doubts. Their solution is requiring quite a bit more of fuel. First they softland the first stage. This one seem to not need any heat shield, but surely quite a bit of fuel to deaccelerate to the level it could softland. The second stage is having high speed enough to need heat shield (which also have its weight). Here you need again quite a bit of fuel. The ship itself will have the highest speed when landing. This will also require a lot of fuel. When more fuel is needed, you have more weight, which means even more fuel and more compicated rocket. I bet after a trip like this, they need to take apart every single component of the rocket to check and then install them back one at the time. Without rigid checks and tests, who would dare to fly with them? Meanwhile the Russians are using parachute for landing...

I wonder if it will become much cheaper

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They have declined to test on some missions because they "wanted to give the main payload the best performance". Or maybe they didn't expect to have that much fuel left over.

I think it's pretty easy to calculate the cost of the heat shield. It's going all of the way to orbit, so subtract its weight from the potential payload weight. PICA X is carbon fiber in a phenolic matrix.

SpaceX to Test Soft-Landing First Stage Post-Mission in March

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About the commenting system: It would be nice if it kept the text organized into paragraphs instead of making it to a long continous text. This should be quite trivial to do. My comment above look terrible without the paragraphs.

SpaceX to Test Soft-Landing First Stage Post-Mission in March

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It should render with paragraphs. I'll deal with it.

SpaceX to Test Soft-Landing First Stage Post-Mission in March

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Hm. My comment rendered with paragraphs.