Elon Musk has announced that SpaceX will attempt to recover a Super Heavy rocket by catching it with the launch tower. Although barge landings have become almost routine for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, the landing of a rocket at the same launch tower that it launched from would be a first for any aerospace company.
We’re going to try to catch the Super Heavy Booster with the launch tower arm, using the grid fins to take the load
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 30, 2020
As the test of the Starship rocket prototype SN8 so explosively demonstrated earlier this month, SpaceX might be able to make rocket landings look routine, but it is nowhere near easy. This is especially true for its as-yet-experimental heavier models such as the Starship and Super Heavy. Even with the explosion, the test was considered a mostly successful one because engineers got all the data they needed to refine the planned operational version of Starship.
The planned Super Heavy landing test will feature the rocket making a controlled descent using its own propulsion. It will require the use of the arm used to stabilize the rocket at the launch tower before launch. The Falcon 9 can land on the “legs” of its landing gear, but the Super Heavy will not have “legs”.
The benefit to SpaceX is that this could theoretically reduce the turnaround time between launches. SpaceX has become especially known for reusing its rocket stages, which brings down the cost of each launch. However, the process is slowed down by having to bring the stages back on its drone barges and refurbish them before they can be rolled out to the launchpad again.
Musk says that landing them directly at the launch tower could reduce that turnaround time to as little as “under an hour.” This may seem ambitious, considering that the rocket will still have to be checked over before it can safely fly again. A Twitter user going by the name of “Viv” teased him for his ambitions, saying that he was playing a real-world version of the popular space program simulator Kerbal Space Program. Such ambitions are typical for Elon Musk, however.
Saves mass & cost of legs & enables immediate repositioning of booster on to launch mount — ready to refly in under an hour
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 30, 2020
Musk recently said that he could start sending Starship spacecraft on Mars as early as 2024. According to Elon Musk, one of the biggest limiting factors is that an optimal launch window for sending spacecraft to Mars only opens up once every 26 months. In the last launch window in July 2020, NASA launched the Perseverance rover, which will land on Mars in early 2021.
Such a low turnaround may mean that Musk can speed up his plans for Mars. One viable plan for sending crews and eventual settlers to Mars, known as Mars Direct, would send all of the hardware to Mars before crews actually arrive. Based on comments made by Mars Direct creator and Mars Society president Robert Zubrin, Mars Direct eliminates the need for “way stations” in space like NASA’s Lunar Orbit Gateway partly by making use of in-situ resources utilization to make rocket fuel, drinking water, and oxygen to breathe using elements that are readily available on Mars.
The low turnaround of reusable heavy-duty rockets like the Super Heavy means that the hardware can be sent using fewer rockets and in less time than even the Mars Direct plan would call for. The highly reusable nature of SpaceX’s rockets could be combined with the fast turnaround to save on costs, which would be a major plus for any serious effort to reach other worlds like Mars. Although Musk did say in 2019 that building a sustainable city on Mars would take “1,000 Starships and 20 years“, he may now be interested in bringing those figures down if possible.
The odds that SpaceX can actually land a Super Heavy rocket at the launch tower on the first attempt may be slim. As the explosion of SN8 so dramatically reminded viewers, sometimes things do go boom. However, if SpaceX can get it to work, this will be beneficial for making maximum use of launch windows that only open once every couple of years.