SpaceX is one of the most recognized names in space travel because the company practically pioneered the reusable rocket industry. Nevertheless, the Falcon 9’s first stage remains the only part of the rocket that SpaceX attempts to recover after almost every launch.
Another critical component of the Falcon 9 rocket is its second stage, which separates from the first stage once the payload reaches a particular altitude. SpaceX has never attempted to recover the second stage after it serves its purpose, but that could all change in the near future.
Image Credit: SpaceX
Indeed, it now seems that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shares at least some enthusiasm for recapturing, refurbishing, and reusing Falcon 9 second stages during some of the company’s spaceflight missions.
Musk Tweeted about his interest in the matter last week, and while the landings wouldn’t involve igniting a rocket burn to slow the descent through the Earth’s atmosphere, it instead seems that “giant party balloons” could make for a feasible alternative.
SpaceX will try to bring rocket upper stage back from orbital velocity using a giant party balloon— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 15, 2018
Okay, sure; Musk may have been pulling our leg just a little bit with the “party balloon” idea. After all, controlled space landings typically involve high-tech parachutes that can withstand the harsh conditions endured throughout the fall. Then again, Musk is known to do some fairly-crazy things, like sending a supercar into space to follow Mars in its orbit around the Sun.
All jokes aside, landing a Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage would involve some sort of souped-up balloon. To withstand such a plummet, it would require heavy-duty tethers capable of supporting the weight of the spacecraft, along with heat shielding to protect itself from the immense temperatures during descent.
Once the second stage slows down enough from the forces imposed by the balloon, it could return to Earth safely without being damaged beyond recognition from the heat it would experience otherwise.
Musk’s Tweet certainly leaves us with a lot of wiggle room for speculation, but his endgame seems clear: to realize a fully-reusable rocket platform to slash space travel costs considerably. Fortunately, the company appears to be going down the right path.