When the Space Shuttle Atlantis rolled to a stop on its final mission in 2011, it was truly the end of an era. Few could deny that the program had become too complex and expensive to keep running, but even still, humanity’s ability to do useful work in low Earth orbit took a serious hit with the retirement of the Shuttle fleet. Worse, there was no indication of when or if another spacecraft would be developed that could truly rival the capabilities of the winged orbiters first conceived in the late 1960s.
While its primary function was to carry large payloads such as satellites into orbit, the Shuttle’s ability to retrieve objects from space and bring them back was arguably just as important. Throughout its storied career, sensitive experiments conducted at the International Space Station or aboard the Orbiter itself were returned gently to Earth thanks to the craft’s unique design. Unlike traditional spacecraft that ended their flight with a rough splashdown in the open ocean, the Shuttle eased itself down to the tarmac like an airplane. Once landed, experiments could be quickly unloaded and transferred to the nearby Space Station Processing Facility where science teams would be waiting to perform further processing or analysis.
For 30 years, the Space Shuttle and its assorted facilities at Kennedy Space Center provided a reliable way to deliver fragile or time-sensitive scientific experiments into the hands of researchers just a few hours after leaving orbit. It was a valuable service that simply didn’t exist before the Shuttle, and one that scientists have been deprived of ever since its retirement.
Until now. With the successful splashdown of the first Cargo Dragon 2 off the coast of Florida, NASA is one step closer to regaining a critical capability it hasn’t had for a decade. While it’s still not quite as convenient as simply rolling the Shuttle into the Orbiter Processing Facility after a mission, the fact that SpaceX can guide their capsule down into the waters near the Space Coast greatly reduces the time required to return experiments to the researchers who designed them.
With the notable exception of the Space Shuttle, rockets and spacecraft have always been considered disposable. It’s a slow and expensive way to travel, akin to building a new airliner for every flight, but it was the easiest option. These vehicles have always represented the pinnacle of engineering and material science of their time, and just surviving the trip to space once was an incredible accomplishment. To have another go around would have been asking too much of the technology. Even looking back on the Space Shuttle program, there’s plenty of debate about whether or not the reusable design really paid off in the end.
So SpaceX’s ability to land, refurbish, and refly the first stage of their Falcon 9 booster is no small accomplishment. After demonstrating the idea was possible in 2017, the company made numerous changes to the latest iteration of the rocket with reusability in mind. Known as Block 5, this version of the Falcon 9 is designed to be more survivable and require minimal servicing between flights. The company says its cheaper and faster to reuse the Block 5 than it would be to build a new one for each flight, allowing the company to approach spaceflight more like commercial aviation.
With a fleet of Block 5 boosters now in rotation, SpaceX has given them serial numbers not unlike an airplane’s tail number. It might not be the kind of thing the general public would normally be aware of, but these serial numbers have allowed a dedicated community of space aficionados to keep track of the missions each booster has flown.
Unfortunately the story of one of these rockets, officially referred to as “Cores” in SpaceX parlance, was recently cut short. Core B1056, returning from the Starlink 4 mission on February 17th, failed to land on the autonomous spaceport drone ship (ASDS) Of Course I Still LoveYou and splashed down in the ocean. It’s still unclear what condition the booster was in after its soft landing in the water, but when the recovery ships returned to port empty handed, there was no question as to the fate of B1056.
From a purely business standpoint, the failure of any of SpaceX’s boosters means lost time and revenue. But in some ways B1056 had established itself as the vanguard of the fleet, managing to either set or break a number of records in its relatively short life. The destruction of the most thoroughly flight proven Block 5 booster is a stark reminder that there’s very little about spaceflight that could be called routine.
When the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft reached orbit for the first time in 2010, it was a historic achievement. But to qualify for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, the capsule also needed to demonstrate that it could return safely to Earth. Its predecessor, the Space Shuttle, had wings that let it glide home and land like a plane. But in returning to the classic capsule design of earlier spacecraft, SpaceX was forced to rely on a technique not used by American spacecraft since the 1970s: parachutes and an ocean splashdown.
The Dragon’s descent under parachute, splashdown, and subsequent successful recovery paved the way for SpaceX to begin a series of resupply missions to the International Space Station that continue to this day. But not everyone at SpaceX was satisfied with their 21st century spacecraft having to perform such an anachronistic landing. At a post-mission press conference, CEO Elon Musk told those in attendance that eventually the Dragon would be able to make a pinpoint touchdown using thrusters and deployable landing gear:
The architecture that you observed today is obviously similar to what was employed in the Apollo era, but the next generation Dragon, the Crew Dragon, we’re actually going to be aiming for a propulsive landing with gear. We’ll still have the parachutes as a backup, but it’s going to be a precision landing, you could literally land on something the size of a helipad propulsively with gear, refuel, and take off again.
But just shy of a decade later, the violent explosion of the first space worthy Crew Dragon has become the final nail in the coffin for Elon’s dream of manned space capsules landing like helicopters. In truth, the future of this particular capability was already looking quite dim given NASA’s preference for a more pragmatic approach to returning their astronauts from space. But Crew Dragon design changes slated to be implemented in light of findings made during the accident report will all but completely remove the possibility of Dragon ever performing a propulsive landing.