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How to Save a Rocket: SpaceX’s plan for rocket recovery hits a few bumps

Motivation to develop a reusable rocket system stems from the pocketbook. Much of the cost of spaceflight comes from the construction of the rocket. Finding a way to reuse the first stage, or booster, of the rocket rather than letting it incinerate upon reentry would significantly reduce expenses. SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Canadian-American entrepreneur Elon Musk. His goal: to facilitate private space travel through innovative space technologies. SpaceX was the first private company to launch a spacecraft into orbit and recover it.

Ideally, after separating from the upper stage of the rocket, the booster would reignite and be automatically maneuvered towards a barge for safe landing. Should this technology be successful, the market for launch services could expand from commercial satellites to include human spaceflight and other services. This project, however, is ongoing. The January 10 launch was one step in a much longer journey of technological advancement.

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Falcon 9’s booster tank is constructed of an aluminum lithium alloy and is contained within the first stage of the rocket. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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The supply ship consisted of a partially reusable spacecraft called Dragon, and an attached booster rocket named Falcon. On this particular supply run, Dragon carried experiments and equipment destroyed by another company’s rocket failure earlier last year, but the spacecraft could theoretically deliver humans into orbit as well. Directly below Dragon was the second stage of the rocket, which steered the spacecraft to its desired orbit after separation. An interstage sat between the first and second stages, helping the two pieces disconnect from each other during flight.

Ruby Hampton

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