Elon Musk, founder of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), has always said that he wants his rockets and spacecraft to be fully reusable. That’s why it stoked our interest to see Musk tweet this recently: "Design completed for bringing rocket back to launchpad using only thrusters. Yay. Wings r just dead weight in space."
In a press release a few months ago, SpaceX had shown an animated simulation of a Falcon 9 that returned both its first and second stages all the way to land vertically at a recovery site. Recently we spoke to Musk so he could elaborate on the design in more than 140 characters.
Reusable Rocket Parts
As Musk’s tweet implied, there are two primary ways to recover a rocket part: It can either fly back to a recovery location with wings (as the shuttle did) or return under rocket power. Wings add structural weight but are reasonably reliable, while the rocket approach is versatile but adds weight because of the extra propellant that must be carried to fly back. Plus, there’s a risk of the rocket engines not restarting, or shutting down permanently.
Despite the dangers, Musk is clearly a fan of the rocket-powered approach. He told PM that SpaceX has come up with a solution to make both the lower and upper stages of the Falcon 9 reusable. (The Dragon capsule that will fly atop the rocket has already demonstrated that it can be recovered in the ocean after it splash-lands with a parachute, though SpaceX is building vertical-landing capability into that as well.)
Read more: Elon Musk on SpaceX’s Reusable Rocket Plans – Popular Mechanics