May 21, 2019

How to Land a Spaceship

“No matter what mission astronauts are sent to accomplish, the engineers who send them must solve two basic problems: how to get the space travelers off the Earth (and into orbit or on their way to the moon or Mars) and how to bring them back again. With decades of experience in shoving payloads into space, the world’s space powers have unanimously settled on chemical rockets as the best way to launch astronauts. The question engineers still debate is: What’s the best way to land them?

Boeing and SpaceX, which, through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, are scheduled to send astronauts to the International Space Station next year, have been asked to respond to spaceflight’s two basic problems with ingenuity, economy, and gee-whiz technology for the cosmic challenges ahead. Yet one of the most visible elements of their privately designed spacecraft will hearken back deep into last century: They’re shaped as capsules, counting on their blunt, high-drag shapes and a brace of parachutes to slow them from an orbital speed of 17,000 mph to a velocity that human occupants can survive when they hit the Earth’s surface.

The space shuttle was supposed to end all that when it took its first flight in 1981, providing airliner-like comfort during its gentle runway touchdown. And in creating the next generation of space transportation, SpaceX, at first, really did try to lean into the future. Elon Musk and his team pushed for a new kind of lander, one that relied on thruster rockets, instead of parachutes, to slow the ship and extendable legs to balance it upon touchdown—a so-called propulsive landing. “That is how a 21st-century spaceship should land,” Musk boasted in 2014, “anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter.” SpaceX has largely succeeded with propulsive landing for its payload delivery rockets—the Falcon 9 first stage regularly, and impressively, lands upright on an ocean barge or back at Cape Canaveral. But such leaps forward with live astronauts inside require time and money that NASA was unwilling to commit to a mission whose key selling point was economy. At least that’s what space watchers guess from Musk’s laconic abandonment of the approach in 2017. So the parachutes came out again.

NASA’s astronaut splashdowns have acquired a nostalgic if not mythic tinge at the distance of half a century. But they were hairy affairs in real life. Gus Grissom nearly drowned after the second Mercury flight in 1961—a famous incident made more famous by its inaccurate portrayal in the 1983 film The Right Stuff. The next year, Scott Carpenter landed 250 miles off course and spent three hours in a life raft before rescue by the USS Intrepid.”

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