While the unmanned launch will be tense — another explosion would be disastrous for the company, which has a NASA contract to fly astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017 — many will also be watching to see if Musk is able to stick the landing of the Falcon 9’s booster stage on a landing pad the company has built on the Florida Space Coast.
Typically, rocket boosters are used once, burning up or crashing into the ocean after liftoff. But Musk, the co-founder of PayPal and Tesla, has been working on creating reusable rockets that act like airplanes—fly, land, then fly again.
“Imagine if aircraft were single use — how many people would fly?” Musk said at a forum last year at MIT. “Nobody’s paying half a billion dollars to fly from Boston to London.”
Last month, Jeff Bezos, another billionaire with huge ambitions to colonize the cosmos, landed his space company’s rocket after it had flown to the edge of space, becoming the first to do so from such a great distance. (Bezos also owns The Post.)
Being able to reuse a rocket, he said, is the “holy grail” of space flight because it would dramatically lower the cost.
After Bezos’ Blue Origin landed the first stage of its New Shepard vehicle at its remote West Texas launch facility, Musk congratulated the company. But he also seemed miffed that one of his rival’s had made a huge leap forward in the race to land and recover rockets. In a series of Twitter posts, he pointed out that SpaceX’s rockets were bigger and more powerful because they were designed to fly into orbit, not just to the edge of what’s considered space.
Sunday’s launch would be the first time California-based SpaceX has attempted to land an orbital rocket on land. For safety reasons, the company’s previous landing attempts were on a floating platform a few hundred miles in the Atlantic Ocean. It had also sent suborbital rockets a few hundred feet into the air before bring them back down to the pad.
On the first attempt to land on the floating platform earlier this year, the rocket crashed and exploded into a spectacular fireball — or what Musk called a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.”
In April, during the last attempt to land on what Musk calls an “autonomous spaceport drone ship,” essentially a modified barge that’s 300 feet long by 170 feet wide, the rocket seemed on course until the last moment when it suddenly veered sideways and couldn’t right itself in time. Musk said the crash was due to “slower than expected throttle valve response.”
But the fact that the boosters hit the drone ship after reaching an apogee of about 80 miles gives the company—and federal regulators—the confidence that SpaceX could safely land its booster at Cape Canaveral.
In June, a Falcon 9 rocket carrying food and supplies for the astronauts aboard the space station exploded minutes after liftoff, ending a string of successful flights for SpaceX. The failure came at a particularly bad time since the other company contracted to fly cargo to the space station saw its rocket explode eight months earlier.
That contractor, Dulles-based Orbital ATK, returned to flight earlier this month, and its Cygnus space craft successfully docked with the space station. SpaceX not only has the cargo contract, but is also preparing to fly astronauts to the space station, which puts even more pressure on its return to flight.
Since its mishap last June, SpaceX has upgraded the Falcon 9 rocket, which is now sitting on the pad at Cape Canaveral waiting for the countdown.
Liftoff is scheduled for 8:29 p.m. Sunday.