Technology

SpaceX Scores With California Launch, Heads Toward Reusable Rockets


Liftoff of the upgraded Falcon 9 on Sept. 29

Courtesy SpaceX

Liftoff of the upgraded Falcon 9 on Sept. 29

It takes about four hours to drive south from Silicon Valley to Vandenberg Air Force Base. Along the way, you pass dozens of California’s epic farms, Hearst Castle, and several picturesque coastal towns surrounded by forests of eucalyptus trees (why these got imported without the complementary koalas will forever baffle me). Finding the actual base is easy enough: Peel off Highway 101 for a few miles until you dead-end at the absurdly large complex. Kind, armed gentlemen will greet you.

These guards let me onto the grounds Sunday morning for a first-of-its-kind event. SpaceX, Elon Musk’s commercial space company, usually launches its payloads from the East Coast. This time, though, it chose California and Vandenberg for the launch of a Canadian weather satellite and to test some new technology on a revamped rocket design. At 9 a.m. the Falcon 9 rocket did just what it was supposed to and surged skyward. It looked like this.

I watched from about five miles away in an elevated, gravelly cut-out that, while rustic, offered a spectacular view of the Vandenberg launch pads. For the first 15 seconds after liftoff, I stood mouth agape and thought that matter is just energy condensed to a slow vibration and that we’re all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively and that there’s no such thing as death and that life is only a dream and that we are the imagination of ourselves. And then the sound hit me. It’s a thunderous crackling that comes from fire being tortured. Vibrations, even from miles away, tickle your skin and make your pant legs flicker. It’s an awesome sensation that turns downright wondrous at the sight of a manmade object making its way with such smooth determination toward the final frontier.

For SpaceX, there were mostly victories all around. The company put another paying customer’s payload into space. It paved the way for California to be a solid launch option, which is a plus because the West Coast is preferred for payloads that have polar orbits (while East Coast pads handle objects with equatorial orbits). And SpaceX broke in the Falcon 9 v1.1, a new system with more powerful engines, longer fuel tanks, and revamped controls.

The only downside came when SpaceX tried out some new technology meant to let the first stage of the Falcon 9 refire after separation with the second stage and conduct some flight maneuvers. Musk hopes one day to reuse the first stage and has been working on technology that would let it land safely rather than crashing into the water. The tests didn’t come to fruition. The booster on the first stage did relight twice in a bid to return toward the pad, but the fuel ended up spinning around inside of the rocket and failed to feed the fuel pumps with enough juice. So it goes. Musk still thinks he’s seen enough to be encouraged that SpaceX is on the right track and reusable, less-costly rockets are inevitable.

Chris Jordan, a first lieutenant with the First Air and Space Test Squadron at Vandenberg, said about a dozen engineers from the Air Force had been observing the SpaceX crew over the past few weeks. The engineers are there to assess SpaceX’s procedures and to determine whether the company can keep using Vandenberg for launches. Jordan noted that the engineers had been placed on a 24-hour watch because SpaceX’s staff were unpredictable and worked on their rocket at odd hours. “Other contractors have very well-established processes,” Jordan said. “SpaceX are very fluid and flexible.”

For those of you keeping score at home, the Vandenberg launch gives Musk new ammunition in a now well and truly heated battle with Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon.com, who also has a commercial space company called Blue Origin. Executives from SpaceX and Blue Origin spent much of the last week battling in the press as the two companies fight over access to launch pads. Blue Origin has tried to block SpaceX from gaining control of launch pads, while SpaceX has reminded politicians and the public that Blue Origin has yet to complete any official missions. The spat resulted in this choice quote sent from Musk to SpaceNews:

If they do somehow show up in the next five years with a vehicle qualified to NASA’s human rating standards that can dock with the Space Station, which is what Pad 39A is meant to do, we will gladly accommodate their needs. Frankly, I think we are more likely to discover unicorns dancing in the flame duct.

Beat that, Bezos. SpaceX has about 50 flights already scheduled over the next four years and would seem well on its way to lining up Vandenberg as another launch site for this work.

Vance_190
Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Palo Alto, Calif. He is the author of Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (HarperCollins, May 2015). Follow him on Twitter @valleyhack.

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