CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - The only private company that has reached the International Space Station aims by the end 2014 to launch rockets with first stages that return to Cape Canaveral and spacecraft that land rather than splash down, the company's chief designer said.
The second-generation Falcon 9 rocket will be 60% to 70% more powerful than the current rocket, said Elon Musk, who also is the founder and chief executive officer of Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies.
SpaceX plans to debut the new Falcon 9 in late November, attempting to make first-stage ocean recoveries before making powered landings to Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
"But I really want to emphasize that we don't expect success on the first several attempts," Musk said. "And hopefully next year, with a lot more experience and data, we should be able to return the first stage to the launch site, deploy the landing legs and do a propulsive landing on land back at the launch site."
The new Dragon 2 spacecraft will haul more supplies to the International Space Station and return more cargo to Earth, a considerable plus for scientific research, officials said.
What's more, Musk said, it's going to be flat-out cool.
Side-mounted thruster pods, big windows and "there are also landing legs that just sort of pop out of the bottom," Musk said. "So it looks like, you know, kind of a real alien spaceship, if you will."
A Dragon spacecraft that could make an atmospheric re-entry and land -- rather than make an ocean splashdown -- would be an evolutionary step for SpaceX. It would cut costs involved with deploying a fleet of recovery ships and personnel at the end of every mission.
A first stage that can fly back to its launch site would be revolutionary and a significant step toward fielding a fully reusable launch system, one of the holy grails of space exploration.
The co-founder of Paypal and chief executive of Tesla Motors and Solar City outlined his plans in a teleconference with reporters Thursday.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former astronaut, took part, congratulating SpaceX for a successful supply run to the International Space Station and return to Earth this week of 3,256 pounds of science samples and experiment equipment.
Dragon capsules are the only current spacecraft capable of returning significant amounts of cargo from the station. Robotic Russian, European and Japanese resupply ships are stuffed with trash and deliberately incinerated during atmospheric re-entries.
"The SpaceX flights are so important to our use of the International Space Station," said Julie Robinson, NASA space station program scientist. "So we're really excited to have all those samples safely on the ground, already being distributed to the researchers that are going to be using them. And then we're excited for those researchers to roll up their sleeves and get the rest of the lab work done."
A national laboratory with the same status as Los Alamos, the International Space Station is expected to operate through at least 2020.
SpaceX aims to have a piloted version of the Dragon spacecraft ready to fly in 2015. NASA is sticking to a more conservative date: 2017.
By Todd Halvorson, Florida Today