SpaceX's returned booster rocket back in hangar

January 4, 2016 byMarcia Dunn
SpaceX's returned booster rocket back in hangar
In this Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016, photo, provided by SpaceX, the used Falcon 9 first stage rocket is seen in a hangar at Cape Canaveral, Fla. This represents SpaceX's first successful fly back and landing of a rocket booster. This leftover booster returned to land, following liftoff on a satellite-delivery mission, on Dec. 21, 2015. (SpaceX via AP)

SpaceX's booster rocket, the Falcon, is back in its nest following a historic landing.

The California company led by Elon Musk shared a picture of the returned booster Sunday. The used Falcon 9 is shown on its side inside a hangar at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Musk says no damage was found.

The booster carried satellites aloft Dec. 21, then flew back to its specified landing zone, a first for an orbital mission. It landed upright on legs.

Musk plans to fire the booster again in a test to demonstrate rocket reusability. This particular booster won't fly again, given its significance. Another landing could occur as early as next month on a space station supply run for NASA.

SpaceX wants to reuse rockets to save time and money.

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1 / 5 (1) Jan 04, 2016
Musk plans to fire the booster again in a test to demonstrate rocket reusability. This particular booster won't fly again, given its significance.

But the question isn't whether the rocket will light up again. That doesn't demonstrate anything.

The real question is whether the whole structure has sustained so much metal fatigue from the vibration and accumulated cracks so that it would fail on a subsequent flight. They have to go through every weld and strut millimeter by millimeter with an X-ray machine to prove that.

The challenge is that metal fracture due to crack formation is an exponentially accelerating process, so it happens kinda suddenly. A shaft that's been spinning for 30 years may snap in a matter of days when the crack starts to grow, so you got to catch it before there's barely a hint of it.

5 / 5 (1) Jan 05, 2016
It is certainly true that reliable reuse will have to be established, especially before humans are sent up in re-used rockets, but going over every millimeter with an x-ray machine is not the only way to establish that. Since fuel cost is only about 0.3% of a total Falcon rocket cost, they could instead refuel it and send it up again a few hundred times with a dummy second stage.

Or a hybrid approach: The first returned rocket is too valuable a source of data to risk a second-landing failure, so x-ray key portions of it first. Then fire it up again several times on land and give it a more thorough inspection.

If all looks good, send the second-to-land rocket back up a few times with dummy loads, and then give it a full inspection. For the next rockets, send them up first with an expensive cargo, and then send them up a few more times with just replaceable supplies, and then send them up time after time with dummy loads, until one finally fails. Then inspect the others.

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