Still Report #776 – SpaceX Nails 1st Soft Landing at Sea

from Bill Still

You’ve heard Donald Trump say that America never wins any more. Well, that has been true generally, over the past 7 years. But yesterday was an exception.
Elon Musk, the co-founder of Paypal and CEO of both SpaceX and electric car maker, Tesla Motors, is only 44 years old, but with a net worth of over 13 billion dollars, he is already the 75th wealthiest American.
Incidentally, Elon Musk is also the force behind the Hyperloop train-in-a-tube concept. This first transonic train will run between run from Vienna, Austria, to Budapest, Hungary at speeds of 758 miles per hour. For more info, see Still Report #696.
Elon Musk’s vision for SpaceX has always been to build reusable launch vehicles to fill the gap created when President Obama shut down NASA’s manned spaceflight program 6 years ago. Since then, the United States has had be mostly depend on Russian-made launch vehicles for its heavy-lift space needs.
In order to make the SpaceX business model commercially viable, Musk needed to be able to launch from the existing Florida launch facilities at Cape Canaveral. Why, because you can’t launch heavy-lift vehicles over populated areas, and so launches must be from a coastline, out over the ocean.
The advantage Cape Canaveral has over the California launch facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base is that at the Cape you can launch to the East and since the Earth rotates towards the east, launches get about a 1,000 mile-per-hour speed boost into orbit.
But in order to reuse the largest and most expensive part of the launch vehicle, the 9-engined first stage must be able to land on the pitching deck of an autonomous ocean-going barge ship, oddly named, “Of Course I Still Love You”.
This robo-barge has a landing deck that is only 170 wide by 300 feet long. However, SpaceX’s Falcon-9 launch vehicle lands on legs that stand 60 feet apart, so there is not much room for error.
Before launch, the robo-barge is stationed 150 miles downrange. It is said to be capable of precision positioning within 3 meters, even under storm conditions.
Yesterday afternoon the sea was very rough with high altitude crosswinds of 50 mph and low altitude winds of 25 mph.
SpaceX has tried this landing 4 times in the past; all have ended in failure.
Yesterday afternoon, the Falcon 9 lifted off at 4:43 pm Eastern time.
[insert countdown]
Seven minutes later, after sending its Dragon-capsule payload successfully towards the International Space Station (the ISS), the first stage fired its retro-rockets to return to earth.
Now we’ll pick up with the live video coverage provided by the SpaceX team. The video window on the right is the second stage engine accelerating the Dragon capsule towards the ISS.
Eventually, the robo-barge will automatically refuel the first stage, and then serve as a launch platform as the first stage takes off and automatically returns itself to the Florida launch facility.
I’m still reporting from Washington. Good day.