SpaceX's Future Spaceship Forgets Parachute

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Going down, not up: Musk’s vision for the future of reusable rockets: powered landings. Credit: SpaceX.

After atmospheric reentry, but before touchdown, conventional logic dictates that the spacecraft you’re riding in would deploy a parachute. I mean, that’s the only sensible way to safely land a spacecraft with no wings, right?

Well, if you were paying attention to Elon Musk’s announcement at the National Press Club in New York on Thursday, you’ll know that SpaceX isn’t necessarily following conventional logic.

The private rocket-building company wants to not only land its Dragon spaceship under rocket power alone, they also want to build a two-stage launch system that will — wait for it — be 100 percent reusable. How does Musk propose he’ll do this?

I think the only way to explain is to watch this animation:

(Playing Muse’s “Uprising” in the background is awesome, in my opinion. I’m sold.)

If seeing is believing, a future Dragon capsule (not the one currently under development to launch supplies for NASA to the space station) will be outfitted with boosters to facilitate a controlled descent. And the two stages of the launch vehicle will return to Earth — direct to different landing pads — also under rocket power alone. Not a parachute in sight.

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It will be the world’s first fully-reusable space launch system. This is a space agency’s dream, where the road to riches lie in 100 percent reusable hardware. (Well, that’s the theory, anyway.)

Although a powered landing may not be familiar to us, it doesn’t mean it won’t work. After all, a component of landings that puts robotic missions onto the Martian surface are powered — including NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” scheduled to blast off for the Red Planet in November that will use a rocket-powered “sky crane.”

The current Soyuz spacecraft uses a short rocket-powered burst prior to touchdown to ensure a “soft” landing and a future Russian space agency vehicle may also dispense of the parachutes and depend on a precision, powered landing instead.

This all makes sense to Musk, who already announced the possibility of having a dual-purpose rocket system attached to future Mars-bound Dragon vehicles. The emergency escape system could also be used as a powered landing system. Why not have a similar system bolted to Dragon vehicles intended to deliver supplies and astronauts to low-Earth orbit too?

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“Dragon currently doesn’t have a launch escape system, and the shuttle didn’t either,” Musk said. “But we agree with NASA it is a wise move to have that. It will take us about 2 years, maybe 3 to have a launch escape system, and it will be a significant innovation, as the escape thrusters are bolted in the side of the spacecraft, so can also use it for propulsive landing, so we’ve been talking with NASA about using Dragon for a test to land to on other planets like Mars.”

Musk does admit, however, that this technology might not work, but it’s worth a try.

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“Now, we could fail — I’m not saying we are certain of success here — but we are going to try to do it,” he said. “And we have a design that on paper — doing the calculations, doing the simulations — it does work.”

“Now we need to make sure that those simulations and reality agree, because generally when they don’t reality wins.”

Interestingly, Musk also had some time to comment on his motivation behind sending humans to Mars, and it’s pretty much the same basic philosophy I have: to extend the reach, and lifetime, of our species. Musk refers to this as a “life insurance” policy — we should send as many people to Mars (and beyond) as possible, just in case the worse should happen on Earth.

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So before we start building Mars colonies it would be good to have a sustainable, and lucrative, space launch infrastructure in place. And Elon Musk is tackling this goal head-on.

But before boarding the Dragon, I’ll make sure there’s a parachute packed, you know, just in case.

Sources: Universe Today, Washington Post