Up until now, SpaceX rockets have always landed by deploying legs around the rocket as it returned to earth. If new remarks from Elon Musk are accurate, the company wants to get rid of that method to save weight. Future spacecraft may not sport legs at all.
The Super Heavy launch vehicle is the first-stage launcher for the second-stage craft known as Starship. Super Heavy will still use its engines to control its descent, similar to the current Falcon 9, but it will use its grid fins to control orientation in flight.
According to Musk, SpaceX believes it doesn’t need legs to land the rocket safely. After a reader asked Elon if a user-created video captured the Super Heavy descent profile accurately, the founder of SpaceX dropped this announcement:
We’re going to try to catch the Super Heavy Booster with the launch tower arm, using the grid fins to take the load
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 30, 2020
“We’re going to try to catch the Super Heavy Booster with the launch tower arm, using the grid fins to take the load” doesn’t sound like the kind of statement that gets people hot and bothered, but context is everything, and an awful lot of SpaceX fans are excited about the idea. An equally large group of them, including the author, are a bit puzzled by it. It isn’t clear what it means to have the launch tower “catch” the Super Heavy. Launch towers don’t exactly fall down if you breathe on them, but I’ve never heard of using one directly to catch a rocket (even a depleted, first-stage rocket).
The implication seems to be that the rocket bears its own weight directly on the grid fins and that the “catch” is more about lining up the rocket with the launch arm in a way that allows them to interlink again, as opposed to using the launch arm to somehow brake or control the Super Heavy as it descends.
Saves mass & cost of legs & enables immediate repositioning of booster on to launch mount — ready to refly in under an hour
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 30, 2020
According to Elon, the goal is to enable the reuse of the same rocket in under an hour. This is rocket re-usability of the sort envisioned by sci-fi writers who predicted Earth-Moon or Earth-Mars shuttles leaving every hour on the other, with little more than a refueling required before the next journey.
It’ll be a long time before we reach anything like that speed, if ever. The first Super Heavy boosters to land successfully will be carefully analyzed before being allowed to launch again. Currently, the world-record holder for the most-reused rocket is B1049, a SpaceX booster that has launched and been recovered successfully six times.
But Super Heavy doesn’t need to refly in under an hour to revolutionize space travel. NASA’s best record for putting the same Shuttle into orbit is 55 days, and most of the refreshes took considerably longer.
A reusable rocket that could launch once per month would be a dramatic leap ahead of anything NASA achieved with the Shuttle (and with the benefit of a few more decades of R&D in computing and material engineering). A reusable rocket that could launch every week would revolutionize the cost of space transport. It goes without saying that “under an hour,” if it were possible, would shake things up a bit.
Feature image is the Starship, the Super Heavy’s second stage.
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