Still Awaiting AF Approval, SpaceX to Try Rocket Landing


Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the start-up rocket-maker known as SpaceX and headed by billionaire Elon Musk, hasn’t yet received certification to launch U.S. military and spy satellites.

But that hasn’t stopped it from looking for ways to further drive down the launch costs by making rockets reusable.

The company, based outside Los Angeles, this weekend will for the first time attempt to land its Falcon 9 rocket on an unmanned ship in the Atlantic Ocean after launching from Cape Canaveral on a NASA mission to resupply the International Space Station.

Liftoff is scheduled 4:47 a.m. local time Saturday. The mission was previously scheduled for Tuesday, but called off after a computer detected an unrelated anomaly on the booster’s upper-stage actuator during countdown.

The odds of successfully landing the first-stage booster on the moving target aren’t that great — Musk put them at about 50-50. But the company already came close to accomplishing the feat in August, when the section returned from space, entered the atmosphere and soft-landed in the water.

Stabilizing the 14-story rocket for reentry “is like trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a wind storm,” is how SpaceX describes it.

If successful, it’s hard to imagine what else the company would have to do to prove to the Air Force that it can launch national-security payloads. The service recently pushed back the date it expects to approve the company for such missions to mid-2015 — a six-month delay from its original date.

The reason for the longer time line wasn’t clear. As Andrea Shalal of Reuters reported:

“It said SpaceX had met 80 percent of the jointly agreed criteria for certification, and was demonstrating the ability to innovate and resolve outstanding issues.”

SpaceX, which is also working with NASA to develop a spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts, wants to compete against United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture of aerospace giants — Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. — to launch military satellites as part of the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, program.

SpaceX will face added pressure to perform after an unmanned rocket made by Orbital Sciences Corp., another commercial space firm trying to compete for a bigger piece of the military market, exploded shortly after liftoff in Virginia. The Antares booster was using Soviet-era engines that had been refurbished.

UPDATE: SpaceX’s daring landing attempt wasn’t succesful. The rocket hit the barge but came in too fast and exploded. “Close but no cigar this time,” Musk tweeted afterward.


About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Peter

    I think we are seeing the start of the REAL space age. If we can get away from the old-school of only getting back around 10% of what we send up then maybe things can start to become properly viable.

    • hull

      Idiots’ space age, to be exact.

  • stephen russell

    awesome, & use barge anyplace alone, be huge. More jobs worldwide.

  • oblatt22

    Its funny the people thank that spaceX will reduce costs and somehow revive the US space industry. As if some sort of capitalist market principal is occurring LOL.

    All musk wants is to get a foot in the cartel. In10 years SpaceX will be a junior partner of the cartel. The price will stay the same, uncompetitive, dependent on government subsidized work. And people will ask what ever happened.

    • hull

      Now that’s real insight and wisdom.

      Too bad only a tiny percentage of the population wI’ll ever get it.

    • Phil R.

      Space X is the only company who makes their own rocket engines. I went to their facility and looks like they make everything by themselves so thats why is so cheap. I bet the Airforce will be on their knees later on.

    • Dfens

      What SpaceX will become is for the future to decide. They have already revived the US space program and their very existence is an indictment of the way the government does business with the old line of blood sucking defense contractors. For right now, I’m calling this a win and I’m hoping that the rest of my fellow Americans are at least alert enough to start seeing what is really at the root of the persistent failures in government contracting. Too bad the rocket broke apart due to too high a sink rate. The rest of the mission was a success.

    • Bernard

      You’re thinking of Lockheed, this is Space X.

    • William_C1

      Big government contractors are evil greedy slackers, new start-ups are evil greedy slackers, who isn’t an evil greedy slacker in Oblat’s world? How does business and industry work in Oblat’s perfect fantasy world? Does the government control everything? Why don’t these evil greedy slackers of yours exist in the government? Prove to me that you’re more than just some troll who complains about everything related to the United States.

      If only other countries could be evil greedy slackers like us Americans. Maybe then people like the Taliban would spend less time stoning women, planting IEDs, and getting shot by American soldiers and more time trying to earn wealth.

  • Muttling

    What is the fuel costs for a missile with rocket landing capability? That’s a lot more fuel used and it massively increases the launch weight of the missile which requires even more fuel. Put the recoverable/ reusable parts and put them on a parachute recoverable portion of the missile, let the rest drop.

    • Ziv

      Actually bringing the first stage back doesn’t use very much fuel at all. They built the vanes onto the first stage to slow it down and control its orientation as it returns to the surface. The vanes are very light but do the job of controlling the first stage without using fuel until the last minute. I believe I have read that they use a little less than 10% more fuel on a first stage that they will be recovering. So the max payload of the Falcon 9 goes down by a small amount, but the cost to launch it drops significantly.

    • blight_

      What’s the wear and tear on reusing a first stage? Is it cost-effective to do a thorough reconditioning instead of building anew each time? I was under the impression that reconditioning of the shuttle boosters was almost as expensive as building them for single use. Perhaps the economics has changed, or SpaceX is doing something differently to make recovery and re-use cost-effective?

      • @ScienceAdvisor_

        Dunking a rocket in sea water can’t be good, and probably adds tot he cost to refurbish significantly. It’s good to ask these questions, but the answers are - nobody knows. In 3 weeks, when SpaceX tries this again, and if they are successful, then we can glean some data. Until then it’s all naysaying and specualtuion

        • blight_

          I imagine that dropping the boosters into the water was viewed as less damaging than dropping a booster onto land. Even with parachutes, the landing was probably quite hard.

          But investing in the ability to land in a controlled fashion…

  • Franklin

    Elon is a bit secretive. I know he will get it right eventually, but good crash photos are almost as good as a perfect landing. After all nobody was hurt and the barge didn’t sink. I am sure he was shooting with something better than an instamatic in multiple wavelengths. My only beef is that Nasa could have done this fifty years ago. Think were we could have been today, and I’ll be dead before all the good stuff starts happening. We had nuclear propulsion plans ready to go the day we landed on the moon. Don’t forget the Pilgrim Observer!

    • Max

      They ARE doing it, only in Black projects. NASA is a dog and pony show for the gullible public

      • Dfens

        Black projects are a little better, but not a lot better than those you see failing every day. There is, for instance, a reason why you’ve never seen white world release of what many once called the Aurora project, and it isn’t because it was so wildly successful.

        • Max

          Is that so? Why then, does the TR3B reportedly use nuclear engines with hydrogen as the propellant, a super-high tech ring of spinning iron-mercury ions which reduces gravity by 80%, allowing both vertical and horizontal flight at Mach 9, and that’s close to earth. Further away from earth’s gravity, it is speculated that it could travel from Earth to Mars in 6 weeks.

          The photos of it show that it is about 3 football fields in width (!!). There have been sightings of this Black Triangle craft since the 1990’s, starting in Belgium. There was even an article about it on this site at one time.

          There are reports also of a follow-on craft to the XB-70 Valkyrie from the 1960’s that was supposedly terminated. It is used as a secret fast launch craft for satellites or resupply to hidden space stations used by XXX government agencies.

          Friend, you just don’t have a clue.

          • Franklin

            All the black stuff is interesting, but we actually built and tested engines (NERVA) in 1968 that were ready to go into a spacecraft for a manned Mars mission. Congress killed it.

            Today Lockhead Skunkworks claims they are building a fusion reactor. Then there is The Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR®) engine. Combined the two and you have actifical gravity through constant thrust for a quick trip to Mars. You also undoubtedly have black projects in the US and China trying to deveope Satellite Propulsion Research Ltd (SPR Ltd) concept for electromagnetic wave propulsion. Working testbeds have validated this concept. SpaceX could speed things up, but not soon enough for me.

          • Max

            Congress “killed” it, but the military took it into the black. Thermal nuclear propulsion has been a reality for at least 20 years, just not with NASA.

        • William_C1

          If some of the very ambitious rumored “black projects” exist and have failed I think you have to cut them some slack for genuine attempts to push the envelope of what can be achieved with the technology and materials we have at our disposal. There are a lot of unknowns involved and some attempts will inevitably not work. Maybe Aurora was one of those failures, maybe it wasn’t, maybe it never even existed. Hopefully we’ll someday know.

          • Dfens

            I don’t have to cut anyone any slack. This is what I do for a living. I’m not just guessing how difficult it may or may not be. There’s a lot of stuff that you should know about, but the problem is the current system for classifying data revolves around what is or is not embarrassing for the Pentagon. The system is supposed to be about protecting data important for the security of the nation or to protect the lives of our intelligence agents in foreign countries. It is a fundamental change in the nature of our classified data system, and yet again, you were not given a vote or invited to participate in the debate of how the system was changed.

          • Franklin

            In today’s digital world I really don’t see a need or possibility of secrecy. We fight low tech terrorists, and the high tech countries can destroy the planet which is basically what we/they are doing without bombs. The fact of the matter is there are several types of catastrophic events that will change the surface of our planet eventually. Over population and climate change are just speeding things up. We have lost the last fifty years of manned exploration and interplanitery research because of politics. The robots have done their job, but human adaptation to space has suffered.

            In 1722 Benjamin Franklin wrote “without freedom of thought, there can be no wisdom, and no such thing as public liberty”

            Daniel Webster in a speech to Congress in 1834 said; “The contest for ages, has been to rescue liberty from the grasp of executive power.”

            “Liberty cannot live apart from constitutional principle”
            Woodrow Wilson 1887

          • William_C1

            Or it could be that “Aurora” never existed in the sense many believe it to be. For example it seems likely that the “F-19” so many once thought was real never existed in any form and only served to confuse people about the real F-117.

          • Dfens

            Sure, let’s go with that.

          • blight_

            Just because Ben Rich says Aurora didn’t exist doesn’t mean it doesn’t…

            However, considering the inability of Americans to keep their yaps shut, it’d have to be a very secret program to avoid disclosure.

          • franklin

            Keeping our yaps shut to destroy the enemy instead of saving the human race. Wow what have we become? It certainly isn’t an evolved consciousness. Teddy said walk softly but carry a big stick, and I have no problem with that, but when do we face reality and save the planet, and or get into space to save us all!

          • Joel

            Save the planet from what? The earth is in no danger, except possibly from a random asteroid - which we can’t do anything about on short notice, but have the theoretical ability to destroy if given enough time to manufacture the launch vehicles. The earth does not need saving from mankind. It, and the ecosystems it supports, will be around for a long, long, long time.

          • crackedlenses

            Great post. Most people ascribe humanity powers over this planet that it does not possess.

          • franklin

            If we had gone to Mars after the Apollo landings we would be ready for any asteroid today and would probably have colonies on Mars and the moon.

            It only takes one volcano to make the earth uninhabitable. Even the Russians are building a genetic data base to repopulate the earth. Of course with all the nuclear trash building up on in the oceans it may take a while. Some politicians are saying we should take the cores from the closed Diablo nuclear plant and dump them in the ocean. We are already reading pollution from fukushima on the West Coast.

            Other hazards include solar flares, tectonic shifts, and maverick planets that only have to pass through our solar system to alter orbital stabilities. In short space based habitation is an evolutionary necessity.
            Go Elon !!!!!!!!!!!

  • Max

    Why not land it on LAND instead of something that’s moving around? Seems like a better idea.

    • Curt

      Because the rocket is launched over the water for safety, unless you have a conveniently situated, uninhabited island nearby, there is no land to be found.

    • Ziv

      Liability. Land is going to come later/

    • rtsy

      Overall distance. Most of the Earth’s surface is water, so if you can land there you don’t have to spend the extra fuel to get back over land.

  • john burns

    While I applaud any new players in the space program(s), what I belive should be the next goal is a space elevator to put up material. there are certainly lots of challenges, but after seeing what competition has done for robotics( Grand Challenges), i belive the challenges are no more insurmountable than any other challenge. the problem is not tech but cultural. from investors to contractors, what have we always done….rockets. space tehers are fighting this same battle. they are not a universal fix but in the “rocket boy club” they get no focus, because it’s not what we do. we will dick around untill someone else gets it first then we fight patents and politics from then on. its just to safe from a money point of view to cast another rocket idea around in the hopes of getting some govt cheese money later.

    • Peter

      I’m curious: How do you actually ‘install’ a space elevator? I get the spin of the earth, and the weightlessness of space. But what holds it up while building it?
      With it’s length it must weight tons to reach a decent atmosphere. And gravity isn’t that friendly. I’m assuming it’s built in space one end is propelled to a higher atmosphere at the same time the other end lowers to an earth-bound tether?

      And who is it going to land on if it fails? :) I think I saw that part in “Forward unto Dawn”.

  • Darrell

    Did anyone come to work today? This Happened Saturday…

  • @ScienceAdvisor_

    Carbon nanotubes and graphene are both strong enough to build a space elevator with, but we don’t have the engineering knowhow to make them any longer than a few millimeters, and that’s just a bit too short.