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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Science catches up with the 50s


On Monday, December 21st, modern science finally caught up with the vision of space technology from the 1950s. SpaceX finally succeeded in making their Falcon 9 rocket return to earth -- under power -- to land upright on legs.  You can see a short YouTube video here, that shows the landing as seen from a helicopter.

For fans of sci-fi films from the 50s, SpaceX's accomplishment almost seems like a non-event. We've been watching rockets descend under power, to land on their legs since Destination Moon (1950). From sci-fi dreamers to kids reading comic books, the powered landing was just intuitively the "right" way to do it.

Perhaps 50s (and even 60s) technology was not up to the dreamers' visions. NASA decided, even before the first Mercury capsules went into space, that such landings were impossible. They built their whole system around the assumption of the single-use launch system. Perhaps institutional inertia was to blame, but the vertical powered landing was never considered.

So, congratulations SpaceX. You've finally accomplished what us 50s sci-fi fans had expected all along. Keep it up. We are still waiting for our big-wheel space stations and planets full of beautiful women.

3 comments:

KaBluie said...

Is this blog dead?

Nightowl said...

KaBluie:
No, not dead, just really inactive for new content. Got a few more films to review to finish out the 1970s, but that was as far as this blog's "Mission" was. Got a few older ones to do too.

But, another project has sucked away all the 'free' time.

Herbert Miller said...

The reason no one has tried landing a rocket vertically before now is weight. Designing a rocket to land upright makes it gain weight. Every time you add weight you need to carry more fuel. Rockets are designed as light as possible and can only take stress in the up-down direction. Landing a rocket puts horizontal stress on something that will crack in half if it's pressed sideways. So you need to make the rocket sturdier which adds weight. You need to add Landing legs which adds weight. You need to carry more fuel to burn during landing which means a bigger fuel tank which means a larger rocket which means more weight. More weight requires a larger heavier engine which requires again more fuel and a larger rocket. The secret out of this increasing spiral is advanced materials and composites. And a more sophisticated rocket engine needed to be built. And even then advanced computer guidance and navigation is needed to work perfectly to get the rocket in the right place and in the right position to land. So SpaceX had to overcome a LOT to accomplish this.