SpaceX Wants to Land a Rocket —on a Barge
Tomorrow's launch hopes to move toward reusable rockets with dicey landing
By Polly Davis Doig,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 5, 2015 4:07 PM CST
In this May 29, 2014 file photo, Elon Musk, CEO and CTO of SpaceX, introduces the SpaceX Dragon V2 spaceship at the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.   (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
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(Newser) – There's not much that's terribly environmentally friendly, efficient, or inexpensive about rockets—they're single-use, sometimes explode, and even when they don't they usually end up as ocean junk. SpaceX is looking to tweak that calculus with tomorrow's Falcon 9 launch in Cape Canaveral, reports the New York Times. Sure, it's sending a Dragon capsule to the International Space Station with a couple of tons of supplies. But, as Phil Plait writes on Slate's Bad Astronomy blog, "it’s what happens a few minutes after launch that has me very interested: After the initial separation, the first stage booster of the F9 will attempt a vertical landing on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean." In other words: Elon Musk and Co. are going to try to set a rocket booster down on a 300-foot by 170-foot barge.

"It sounds insane," writes Plait, "and to be honest even Elon Musk gives it a coin toss chance of working." SpaceX has tested the feat three times, and Musk tells the Times that while they've twice soft-landed the booster in the ocean, it then "tipped over and exploded. It’s quite difficult to reuse at that point." How it ideally works: After the stage-one rocket booster separates from the Dragon, its engine will fire it around to the unmanned barge, some 200 miles east of Jacksonville, Fla. The barge has GPS sensors, and what Plait says is "the ability to hold its position under its own power even in strong currents." The Times notes that SpaceX has added "grid fins" to the rocket that fold out and help it steer. If it works, Musk has his eye on developing an entirely recyclable rocket, which he tells the Times should cuts his costs to one-hundredth of what they currently are.