Space History Today?

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Unless you’re reading AVweb late Monday, by the time you read this Tuesday morning space launch history either will or won’t have been made. We ought to know for sure by about 7:30 a.m. Tuesday.

In case you haven’t been paying attention-and it hasn’t gotten much coverage-SpaceX is launching another of its robotic re-supply missions to the International Space Station. Cool, but hardly a first. What is a first is that once the vehicle clears the first stage of the booster, SpaceX will attempt to land the spent rocket vertically on a barge off the Florida coast roughly near Jacksonville.

This will require several restarts of the booster engine to get the trajectory right, erect the vehicle to the vertical and back in onto the barge, which measures 300 feet by 100 feet. And if I’m reading it correctly, the barge is semi-autonomous drone with station-keeping capability. I’ve included a photo of it here. Shortly before landing, the rocket will deploy legs to stabilize it and hold it upright.

Frankly, this is not just cool but impossibly audacious. SpaceX puts the chances of success at about 50 percent or less so they are publically downplaying what they’re up to. But I wonder if they’re secretly a lot more confident than that. The challenges are obvious and difficult. In order to get into the barge’s recovery envelope, the launch burn and trajectory has to be pretty accurate, I imagine, and the spent booster won’t have a lot of fuel to adjust its trajectory to the barge. SpaceX has succeeded in soft landings in the ocean before, so they have some flight data to work with. They need 10 meter accuracy, at least.

SpaceX’s Elon Musk has said the goal is reusable boosters that will reduce cost to orbit by what he says is a hundredth of the current cost. While I don’t buy those numbers, even if it reduced orbital costs by half or two thirds, that’s a huge leap forward. And I’ll bet if they don’t pull it off this time, they-or someone else-eventually will.

Meantime, Godspeed Falcon and Dragon. We’ll be glued to the live feedawaiting the results. NASA says because of the vehicle’s trajectory, the launch should be visible along most of the East coast. So get up early and put on a warm coat.

A.M. Update: The launch was scrubbed early Tuesday, with the earliest reschedule on Friday morning.

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