How To Land A Rocket (Or Not)

The first time I visited SpaceX, it was still a startup company operating out of an industrial warehouse. Since then, SpaceX has become the darling of the New Space movement, and it has a long list of pioneering accomplishments. Among them: the first landings of spent rocket stages for later re-use.

The idea had already been proposed by Wernher von Braun’s team in the 1960s, who hoped to land and re-use future versions of 1st stages for the mighty Saturn V rockets. At the time, the concept could not be pursued due to the tight timeline of the Apollo program.

After the moon missions had been prematurely ended, the Saturn rocket program was eventually put on ice and then canceled entirely. Wernher von Braun thought that the upcoming Space Shuttle program should be supplementary to a continued development of the Saturn multi-stage rockets into a whole family of vehicles with partial reusability.

A part of the proposed Saturn heavy lift rocket family.

In terms of reusability, a multitude of concepts were studied. Propulsive landings would have been too much of a technical challenge at the time, so most proposals included parachutes and a splashdown on water, a paraglider apparatus, or wings. For instance, here some historic papers on the matter:

(Warning: these are large files. Download times may vary). 

Recovery Of The SI-C Stage Of The Saturn V – A Preliminary Feasibility Study (PDF, 1.9 MB)

Recoverable S-IB, Chrysler Corp. Space Division (PDF, 11.9 MB)

Candide Materials for Saturn Paraglider Recovery System, Goodyear Aircraft Corp. (PDF, 1.9 MB)

As Von Braun began to vehemently criticize NASA’s sole focus on the Space Shuttle program, he and his Saturn rockets were cast aside. Von Braun was given an inane desk job in Washington D.C. and left NASA a few years later. But as it turns out, Von Braun’s was right, and his suggested route would have been the correct one. Almost five decades later and into the foreseeable future, multi-stage rockets, not winged bodies, still provide the most reliable and least costly transport to space. Not only that, costs can be dramatically reduced, as SpaceX has clearly demonstrated.

It took a private company, SpaceX a long time to make von Braun’s vision of reusable rocket stages a reality. It wasn’t easy, as this video compilation attests.




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Journalist and media professional currently based in Los Angeles, California. Focusing on science and technology.