Fact checking SpaceX statements on Falcon 9
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – Everyone wants to promote their brand, to highlight the good work done by the organization they represent. However, when one is talking about spaceflight? It is vital that one acknowledges the accomplishments of the past. SpaceX’s CEO and Founder, Elon Musk made some statements recently, that, upon reflection have caught the attention of SpaceFlight Insider’s “fact-checker.”
There can be no arguing that Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has made incredible progress in making its Falcon 9 launch vehicle one of the most versatile and reliable launch vehicles currently in production. Recently, the rocket even conducted a safe landing in the Atlantic Ocean. But is this capability new or revolutionary? During a press conference held on April 25 at a meeting of the National Press Club Musk stated the following:
“It’s a really huge milestone for SpaceX and certainly for the space industry. No one has ever soft-landed a liquid rocket boost stage before.”
While it is true that SpaceX’s Grasshopper as well as a modified version of the company’s Falcon 9 (dubbed the Falcon 9-R) first stage have demonstrated the ability to hover in midair -neither they, nor the first stage which carried out a soft landing in the Atlantic after delivering the Dragon spacecraft to orbit on SpaceX-3 – were the first to do. In fact, they were not even second.
Known as the Delta Clipper or DC-X, McDonnell-Douglas, demonstrated the capability to launch, fly horizontal – and then safely land a vehicle. The DC-X flew test flights for some four years (between 1992 and 1996). Part of the Single-Stage-To-Orbit (SDIO) initiative, DC-X became known as DC-XA when it changed hands from McDonnell-Douglas to NASA in 1996. In that year, the DC-XA while completing a landing after a test flight had one of its landing gear fail. The test article toppled over and caught fire. NASA, perhaps under the directive of the administration at the time, opted to cancel the program – despite its successful nature and relatively low cost for a replacement vehicle (Pete Conrad, Apollo Moonwalker and one of the personnel working on the project, estimated it at around $50 million) – the program was not renewed.
More recently, fellow NewSpace company Blue Origin has launched its New Shepard vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing suborbital rocket. Although Blue Origin has been more-than-a-little secretive, the test article has conducted flights in 2011 – the year prior to SpaceX’s first flight of the Grasshopper in September of 2012.
So, did SpaceX conduct the first soft-landing of a liquid-fueled booster? No. However, given the nature of the location in which the statement was given makes a verbal misstep, or forgetting the history involved with this technology perfectly understandable. SpaceX can however, rack up the first use of this type of technology during an actual mission. A fact which was highlighted by one industry insider.
“What SpaceX has done with its innovative use of technology on the Falcon 9 first stage is laudable. This is something that could really lower the cost of space transportation. It is the first application of such technology on an operational vehicle.”, said former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin during a recent interview. “However, it is not actually the first soft-landing of a liquid-fueled rocket. Elon’s successful test was preceded by the 1992 test flights of the DC-X, and also by Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle.”
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.