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NASA canceled a whole research program due to SpaceX's Veni, Vidi, Vici approach

Falcon 9 reentry burn

NASA is well known for pushing the limits of space technology, often nailing the billion-dollar missions on the first attempt. But this approach comes at a price, and we are not talking only about the taxpayers’ wallets. There can be years between the initial idea and the first real-scale test of new technology.

However, this legacy-space paradigm is shifting rather quickly thanks to new space companies and startups such as SpaceX and Rocket Lab. NASA, as a federal agency, has to deal with politics and its budget is heavily dependent on the U.S. Congress. Also, its public image is very important and every failure can result in severe consequences for current or future projects.

Private companies have much wider room for taking risks. Take SpaceX as an example. The space company of billionaire Elon Musk is throwing away rockets – or millions of dollars – to get valuable data and faster development in return, which is something NASA could never think of.

Planetary scientist and space technologist Dr. Phil Metzger from the University of Central Florida, who formerly worked with NASA, now shared a great example of this “let’s fly and see” approach being superior – at least in some cases.

SpaceX is successfully landing the Falcon 9 rockets since December 2015.

If you ever watched a flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, you have surely heard of the so-called reentry burn. When the rocket enters the denser part of the atmosphere, Falcon 9 starts three of its nine Merlin 1D engines and slows the vehicle down, while the engines’ plumes essentially double as a heat shield.

The rocket then shuts down the engines before reigniting them one last time for the vertical landing – either on land or on an autonomous droneship stationed in the ocean.

Dr. Metzger now told a story on X (Twitter) about a young NASA engineer working on research into supersonic retropropulsion, a.k.a. SpaceX’s reentry burn. It was a short conversation in the early times when SpaceX was just figuring out how to successfully land a space rocket. Those attempts were conducted between 2013 and 2015.

“At NASA, we had a big program planned to study this. We were going to start with lots of computer simulations. Then we would put a thruster on a high-speed rail car and shoot the plume into the direction of travel. Then we’d drop rockets off high-altitude balloons,” explained the young engineer.

Clearly, the process would be very lengthy before any rocket would actually attempt supersonic retropropulsion. So it comes as no surprise that it indeed never happened. The reason is SpaceX.

“But then Elon Musk just went and tried it, and it worked! So NASA canceled our entire program!” said the engineer. As simple as that.

As Metzger points out, SpaceX didn’t even have to land the rocket. The mere fact that the vehicle was able to slow down and get back through the atmosphere safely was enough to prove, that the idea of supersonic retropropulsion is viable.

Falcon 9 B1058 booster during its 19th launch and landing

SpaceX managed to successfully land the first Falcon 9 in December 2015 on the coast of Cape Canaveral. The first successful droneship landing followed just a few months later. Ever since, SpaceX has been landing more rockets than it is crashing, shrinking the price of spaceflight significantly.

Thanks to vertical landings and the reusability of the Falcon 9’s, SpaceX aims for an insane goal of 144 flights in 2024. If you don’t want to miss the show, follow Neowin’s Paul Hill This Week in Rocket Launches.

Title image: Steve Colwell (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

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