SpaceX's first experimental landing vehicle was the Grasshopper, which was retired in 2013 after eight flights. Image credit: SpaceX

Feb 19, 2015 SpaceX bypassing replacement for lost Falcon 9R landing test vehicle

Sen—In 2013, SpaceX signed a three-year agreement for land and facilities at Spaceport America in New Mexico, intending to test fly an experimental rocket known as Falcon 9R Dev, which was part of program to develop reusable rockets.

A sensor glitch claimed the first Falcon 9R prototype during a low-altitude flight at SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas, rocket-testing facility, the same site that hosted the predecessor Grasshopper program. At Spaceport America, SpaceX has clearance to fly its rockets to higher altitudes.

In addition to working from the ground up, SpaceX has been experimenting with landing the first stages of operational Falcon 9 rockets.

Early attempts to parachute the boosters into the ocean for recovery failed, prompting SpaceX to try propulsive landings, where some of the rocket’s engines would relight for a series of braking burns. The tests, which began in 2013, grew increasingly more sophisticated, with the addition of cold nitrogen gas thrusters, landing legs and steerable grid fins.

Last month, a Falcon 9 rocket came close to landing itself on a barge in the ocean, but it ran out of hydraulic fluid to maneuver its fins and crashed into the platform. A second attempt last week was stymied by high seas, but the rocket did successfully slow its descent and hover above the ocean’s surface before toppling over.

The ocean tests have been so successful that SpaceX is not currently planning to build a replacement for the Falcon 9R that was destroyed last year.

“We’re learning so much now, given the success of our returned vehicles, that when you can have full-envelope knowledge at a point that you’re only very closely missing the target then such an article doesn’t give you a great deal of additional learning,” Andy Lambert, SpaceX vice president of production, said in an interview.

That doesn’t mean SpaceX is abandoning Spaceport America. The company has invested more than $2 million in facilities, said spaceport director Christine Anderson.

“We’re hoping they’ll start up in the spring,” she said.

Instead of Falcon 9R demonstration vehicles, the company seems likely to use Spaceport America as a testing ground for boosters that manage to land intact, with the goal of learning how well the rockets hold up during reflight. SpaceX declined to comment.

The company’s long-term goal is to reuse its rockets, slashing launch costs. 

“As long as we continue to throw away rockets and spacecraft we'll never have true access to space. It'll always be incredibly expensive,” SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk said during the unveiling of the company’s passenger Dragon capsule last year.

“If aircraft were thrown away with each flight, nobody would be able to fly,” Musk said.

SpaceX’s next Falcon flyback test is targeted for April.