Vertical Landing Rockets Before SpaceX
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Vertical Landing Rockets Before SpaceX

January 28, 2020


You may well be forgiven for thinking
that Rockets which take off vertically and then land again vertically were a
recent development by the likes of Blue Origin and SpaceX but a quick look back
into the history of rocketry and you’ll see that this technique is far from new
and was first used nearly sixty years ago. Just to get a rocket to take off and
land vertically requires a lot of technology to come together. You need to
have enough thrust to take off but then enough fuel left to descend back to
earth, you also need to be able to relight the engines and up to hypersonic
speeds as the rocket falls back to the ground. You need to be able to gimbal or
tilt the engines and the Rockets angle of descent without it tumbling out of
control you also need to be able to throttle down the engines to a small
amount of thrust comparable to that which is required to launch the rocket
with the same engines and you need legs to land on and the mechanism of which to
deploy them. The image of rockets landing vertically on their tail fins has been
popularized in science fiction since the early 1930s though it took nearly 30
years to bring the technology to a point where it could be used practically
though it wasn’t quite in the way you might have expected. The first instance
of a rocket-powered vertical takeoff and vertical landing was shown in 1961 with
the Bell rocket belt. Although the first rocket pack had been developed and
patented by a Russian Alexander Andreyev in 1919 and various people since have
claimed to have invented things like the flying rucksack, it wasn’t until the
mid-1950s that Bell AeroSystems starting work on the Bell rocket belt for the US
Army. The rocket belt used a hydrogen peroxide engine but the 19 liters of
fuel in the tanks could only provide 21 seconds of flight and travelled around
about a 120 meters. But it was a hit with the public and it was toured
around the world and also appeared in the 1965 James Bond film Thunderball. But the US army were less impressed with
the amount of backup required to get one man 120 meters and they canceled the
contract but within a few years there would be a rocket-powered vertical
takeoff and vertical landing vehicle that would be a total success and be
seen by hundreds of millions of people around the world. That vehicle was the
Apollo Lunar Lander, a design that was used in the most inhospitable place man
had ever been to and worked without fail on six separate missions. Though when you
think about it it actually worked in Reverse because it dropped from orbit to
land on the moon and then the ascent module which was only part of a lunar
lander took off to return the crew back to the command module and then back onto
earth. There was also an advantage to landing on the moon because he only has
one sixth of gravity of that on the earth. Fighting gravity is the biggest
issue for any rocket but particularly one which had to slow and hover to find
a landing spot although the lander had some automation
in the form of radar to detect the distance from the ground and computer
control of a single engine when the radar which should have been turned off
for the final part of a descent was accidentally left on an overloaded the
computer with data. Without the computer it fell to Neil Armstrong to manually
land the lander on the surface of the moon. Armstrong was well versed with a
procedure as he had trained on the earth-based version of the lander which
was affectionately known as the flying bedstead. In Earth’s gravity and with no
computers to help him, he described controlling it as like trying to balance
a plate on the end of a broom handle and on one occasion when a thruster ran out
of fuel he had just a seconds notice to eject and avoid almost certain death as
the vehicle lost control and crashed. This shows just how difficult it is to
actually land something which is powered by rockets
especially an object which is tall and thin and not really designed to come
back in the reverse manner of how it took off. It wasn’t until the mid 1990s
but the first true vertical takeoff and vertical landing rocket was seen in the
form of the McDonnell Douglas Delta clipper experimental for DC X. The idea
of a low-cost single-stage-to-orbit vehicle using off-the-shelf components
was proposed to McDonnell Douglas in 1985 by max hunter, their ex chief
engineer for Space Systems who had been thinking of the concept since the sixties
but Mcdonnell Douglas weren’t interested in funding the idea themselves. So hunter
who had also worked for President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative
organizational SDIO went with Jerry Pournelle and General Graham to sell the
idea to Vice President Dan Quayle on the premise that any space-based defense
system would need a delivery system that would be far cheaper more reliable and
with much faster turnaround times than the space shuttle. With the approval of a
project and it coming under the SDIO banner
away from the bureaucracy of NASA and the Air Force it allowed the small team
of around a hundred people at McDonnell Douglas to build a one-third scale
prototype in just 21 months for a cost of just $60 million dollars starting in
1991. The design would take off like a normal rocket and then land back again
in the same vertical position as it took off on extendable legs under its own
power and without any parachutes. The prototype was never designed to go into
orbit and in fact only of a flew to a height of around 2-1/2 km but that was enough to prove the concept. The outer shell was
custom-built by Scale Composites and the rest of a craft including the RL-10A
engines and the control systems were off-the-shelf components. The testing
program started in 1993 and flew three test flights until funding ran out as a
result of the SDI program coming to an end. NASA provided further funding and testing resumed. On one flight a minor explosion occurred and the DCX can be
seen with a hole in its side but it successfully performed an abort and an
auto landing. After the repairs it continued testing in 1995 but after a
hard landing cracked the outer shell and again funding had been cut, there was not
enough funds to carry out repairs. During 1995 NASA begrudgingly agreed to take on the project because of its previous test flight successes but with several
upgrades and a project would be renamed as the DC XA. In 1996 testing resumed
but this time it was also in competition with the Lockheed Martin X-33 venture
star project which NASA had chosen as a possible replacement for the shuttle and
ultimately the DC-X lost out to what NASA said were budgetary constraints but
too many the X-33 was NASA’s pet project and the DC-X was something they didn’t
really want even though the cost of building a new DC XA was just $50 million, a very cheap price when compared to other rocket projects. NASA would go
on to spend $920M on the X-33 over the
next few years only to cancel it at the last minute due
to technical issues with the composite fuel tanks and before any test flights
had taken place. Although the DC-X was at an end it
inspired the Blue Origin New Shepard and some of the engineers which worked on
the DC-X project went on to work at Blue Origin.
Although SpaceX won’t say directly we can see the influence of the DC X on the
Falcon 9 reusable rockets. Some NASA engineers also believe that DC-X concept
would make a good Mars Lander with a crew of up to six people. The testing on
earth proved that it could be done and with the weaker gravity of Mars the
payload capacity would be greatly enhanced. And so we come to the present
day with both SpaceX and blue origen both using similar techniques to
the DC-X though with the benefit of the extra time since the demise of a DC-X the
designs have moved on considerably with the SpaceX Falcon 9 proving but it can
be used for delivering commercial and military payloads into orbit and even
sending a car to Mars. They say that there is nothing new and that we stand
on the shoulders of giants and that’s pretty much true but each step of a way
needs skilled people to fully understand what has gone before in order to build
the new ideas just as the DC-X proved a principle of vertical takeoff in air
maneuvering and vertical landing. SpaceX have taken those principles and found
new solutions to enable them to make a fully working reusable rocket delivery
system and that takes people that have the skills to make those next steps. Our
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