Musk: SpaceX to Attempt Falcon 9 First Stage Water Landing

SpacX Founder Elon Musk
SpacX Founder Elon Musk

At a joint press conference with NASA earlier today, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the company will try a water landing of its Falcon 9 first stage later year.

The landing will be the start of a series of flight tests that could  culminate with an attempted propulsive landing of a first stage back at its launch site in the middle of 2014, Musk said.

During the initial test, the first stage will continue on a ballistic arc and execute a velocity reduction burn to cushion its re-entry into the atmosphere, the SpaceX chief said. Just before splashdown, the rocket will light up its engines again.

Musk said he expected to lose first stages during the initial recovery attempts. The company is looking to gain the experience and data needed to bring a first stage back to the launch site next year for a propulsive landing using retractable legs. He said that attempt could occur in mid-2014.

SpaceX also plans to unveil upgraded versions of the Falcon 9 and its Dragon freighter later this year. The improved rocket includes more powerful engines, longer fuel tanks and a number of significant upgrades that will improve its capability by 60 to 70 percent, Musk said.

Dragon version 2 will be able to carry more cargo and include larger windows for use in later crewed versions of the vehicle.  The upgraded Dragon also will feature powerful, side-mounted thruster pods as well as retractable landing legs that will allow for propulsive touchdowns on land.

Musk expects that water landings will become a thing of the past, and that touching down on land will allow the company to conduct missions at a more rapid pace. He did not give any timetable for the first ground landing attempt.

The SpaceX CEO made his remarks during a post-mission press conference for the recently completed Dragon resupply mission to the International Space Station. Joining Musk at the event were SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, and International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson.

A full synopsis of the press conference is below.

Opening Remarks


  • We’re really pleased at working together that SpaceX and NASA teams were able to berth at station and return safely
  • Importance of the commercial cargo program and how critical it is for the ISS program
  • Orbital Sciences is other COTS partner – set for a test flight of Antares rocket in April


  • Three successful missions in three months –
  • First operational mission with Dragon trunk – grapple bars
  • A number of technological demonstrations on this mission
  • Dragon back in port in Long Beach last night at about 7 p.m.
  • All systems remain powered and NASA received all critical cargo
  • Returned 3,256 lbs. of cargo – 200 lbs. more than originally planned


  • Had an issue with Dragon spacecraft briefly
  • Slight issue with propellant test valve
  • Fixed within four or five hours
  • No further issues after that point
  • We don’t expect to see that issue again


  • Over 200 scientific investigations ongoing on ISS
  • Variety of different types of experiments
  • 300 tubes of blood – studying interaction between nutrition and bone loss — applications for osteoporosis treatment
  • Experiment looking at alloy mixtures – launched on Dragon and returned
  • Agriculture education, commercial activities
  • Samples are on the ground, researchers are beginning to look at them

Q&A Session

Q. When is next CRS launch?

Shotwell: CRS 3 launch late this fall. A number of upgrades to the Dragon configuration that will enable better critical cargo to be sent and returned.

Musk: Will include upgraded Falcon 9. Could increase the useful payload of Dragon by several tons. As much as you could pack into Dragon.

Will attempt to recover the first stage.

“As I said before, I think it will take us several flights before we are successful in that.”

Q. Fairing test status at NASA Plum Brook?

Musk: NASA Plum Brook is an “really, epic super cool” facility

Prepping to do separate tests. Will be releasing information on it in the next few weeks.

Q. Are you optimistic about Orbital Sciences tests going on as scheduled?

Bolden: “Yes”

Q. When will Dragon be ready for human spaceflight and are they still on track for 2015?

Musk: “Things seem to be going very well.” Hitting milestones and hope to do pad abort tests later this year.  “It’s coming along really well.” Partnership with NASA is going very well.

Bolden: All of our partners are making very good progress and making their milestones under CCiCAP agreements. The partners are also involved in developing certification process and showing they meet the requirements that are laid out.

NASA is the long pole in the tent. Hope to put out an RFP next spring with down select for providers in Fall 2014. Depends upon how generous Congress is with funding the program.

Q. What was the problem with the thrusters on Dragon?

Musk: There was a “very tiny change” to three of the check valves on the oxidizer tank. Different from the previous ones that flew, and they got stuck. Was able to write some new software in real time that was uploaded with Dragon to increase pressure upstream from check valve and release it. The spacecraft version of the Heimlich maneuver. Once they got unstuck, they worked very well.

Had difficulty communicating with the spacecraft because it was drifting. Worked with the Air Force to get higher powered dishes to communicate with Dragon and upload the software.

Q. How will sequestration affect commercial crew?

Bolden: As we projected, sequestration has a detrimental impact on the commercial crew program by reducing the amount of money available for partners. Don’t see an impact for the rest of this fiscal year (ends September 30), but it will have an impact down the road unless NASA gets more funding.

Q. What is long-term solution for Dragon thruster problem?

Musk: The software uploaded was to get the valve unstuck. We need to fix this tiny little issue with the valve, reverting it to was it used to be. Will do some checks to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Q. What is strategy on booster recover?

Musk: Initial recovery test will be a water landing. First stage continue in ballistic arc and execute a velocity reduction burn before it enters atmosphere to lessen impact. Right before splashdown, will light up the engine again. Emphasizes that we don’t expect success in the first several attempts. Hopefully next year with more experience and data, we should be able to return the first stage to the launch site and do a propulsion landing on land using legs.

Q. Is there a flight identified for return to launch site of the booster?

Musk: No. Will probably be the middle of next year.

Q. What are long term effects of sequestration?

Bolden: We don’t see an impact for the rest of 2013 calendar year because we ended up with more money than expected in commercial crew. Already discussing delays in commercial crew milestones with partners. Sequestration is a 10-year program that was never supposed to be executed.

Q. What was Bolden’s reaction to SpaceX’s solution to the propulsion problem?

Bolden: Incredible to watch their young, energetic team work through the propulsion anomaly.

Musk: SpaceX and NASA teams are deeply integrated and working closely with each other. It’s great to work with NASA. NASA was so cool, I was far more anxious than NASA was. We have one cool customer.

Q. On the check valve problem, you characterized it as a tiny issue. Was it a manufacturing or a configuration question?

Musk: It was a tiny design revision change from the supplier. The supplier made some mistakes and we didn’t catch those mistakes. Ran system through low pressurization tests, but didn’t run them through the high presssurization functionality tests. Didn’t get stuck in the low pressurization functionality tests. Make sure we don’t repeat that in the future. Need a magnifying glass to see the difference.

Q. How is upgraded Falcon 9 different from the current version?

Musk: Next version is a meaningful upgrade. Has 60 to 70 percent more capability. Improved redundancy, structure, engines, avionics, etc. This version is designed to allow first stage to land propulsively back at the landing site. Will take at least a year to get that right.

Shotwell: Performance changes are more than rocket changes, but translate into an improvement for scientific community. Can bring up more powered cargo, refrigerators, etc.

Musk: Dragon version 2 will be a significant upgrade, with the capability to land propulsively on land. Water landings will become a thing of the past. Will allow for missions at a faster tempo.

Q. Can you provide more details on Dragon Version 2?

Musk: Significant upgrades, powerful side mounted thruster pods. Quite big windows for astronauts to see outside. Landing legs that pop out of the bottom. It look like kind of a real alien spaceship. Started with landing on water because it was the easiest thing to do and we didn’t really know what we were doing. Didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks. Now want to push the envelope on the technology.

Plan to unveil Dragon Version 2 later this year.

Final Comments

Shotwell: Thanks all the SpaceXers for all the hard work they put in. Thanks NASA as both a partner and customer, extraordinary relationship with them. Thanks the Air Force, FAA and FCC.

Robinson: A real consolidation between commercial transport and the use of ISS for commercial research. All these things are going hand in hand, and they’re bringing results back to the U.S. economy.

  • yg1968

    Doug, do you have an mp3 file of the press conference that you can post?

  • No, they don’t have one.

  • “Push the envelope on the technology”. That’s what’s key.
    Something the ESA needs to try. If that was their focus,
    the Ariane 6 could be a man rated launcher and ready in
    half the time.

    Bob Clark

  • windbourne

    Doug, thank you for doing this work. That was useful.

    Sounds like Grasshopper is moving faster than what they thought.
    Now, I wonder if dragon 2 will be landed on the water as well?
    If so, they can get multiple tests in before the launch abort.
    So much is going on with SpaceX and Tesla.
    Just amazing what this guy is doing.
    I wonder how soon before Boeing, L-Mart, etc decide to change their approach and actually spend some money on pushing the technology forward.

    As it is, I have to wonder if SpaceX is working on a Tug/Fuel Depot?
    I think that is a cheap deal for them to do.
    If they get one done before NASA gets funding out there, it will make it hard for the big players to catch up. Sure, they have funding right now. But that is to do some studies. And knowing those companies, they are wasting time on it.

  • dr

    Windbourne wrote:
    “Now, I wonder if dragon 2 will be landed on the water as well?”

    The second to last comment made by Elon Musk in the transcript above states:
    “….with the capability to land propulsively on land. Water landings will become a thing of the past.”
    I think that we need to think more of a Soyuz style landing for Dragon in future. (although the Soyuz doesn’t have landing legs.)

  • dr

    Does anyone know if this is the first time that a Dragon 2 has been mentioned? I have heard of crewed Dragon and cargo Dragon, but I wasn’t aware of a Dragon V2. I think I had assumed that any upgrades to cargo Dragon would happen after crewed Dragon was working, which is now obviously wrong.

  • DocMordrid

    It’s been mentioned before. The DragonRider crew programs product will be Dragon 2.0. What’s new is the larger windows, though they were suspected. What’s unknown is how far the SuperDraco pods will protrude, or if they’re retractable. Significantly extendable pods could keep them out of the plasma flow during reentry but allow for fewer cosine losses when extended and thrusting. Not KISS though.

  • I think it was organizational / design technology they pushed first which allows them to more quickly iterate with the other stuff now. It’s hard to imagine any of SpaceX’s competitors this quickly and significantly rev’ing a rocket; they just aren’t set up to do business that way. No government space organization is set up to do business that way either. SpaceX is doing quick iterations like a software startup (of course the iterations with hardware are relatively slower).

  • dr

    Thanks DocMordrid

  • Shaun Heath

    Attempting water landings with spent first stages that you’ve already sold as expendable is a great idea. Nothing to lose really.

    The other takeaway I have here is that clearly each stage or major component of the vehicle has its own complete avionics suite and computer. Or at least they are tricking out the first stage with just enough to try this. I’d like to hear more about their design.

    They are obviously innovating more in one year than the rest of the industry combined. Chapeau!

  • windbourne

    Sure. But will they try they try a powered water landing first. I would think so but no way NASA will want that tested with their cargo. I wonder if they can add to FH to test?

  • windbourne

    Actually, they did not sell it as expendable. They priced it with expendable in mind. Basically, they are selling a service, not a part. There is a difference. Basically, they own those rockets, while the shuttle was owned by NASA. BIG difference.

    However, they really have nothing to lose here since all of the stages have failed to survive. So, with the work that they have done on grasshopper so far, it will hopefully enable them to make this work the first time. It might not, BUT, they will get a lot of useful info. And if it does not work, well, I suspect that the next attempt will work. SpaceX, WITH NASA, have become VERY adept at solving these issues.

  • Nickolai

    Actually they are going to lose some payload capability since they will need a little bit of extra fuel on board to conduct the velocity reduction burn. Also, if they’re going to put parachutes in the first stage, that will add weight which will require extra fuel.

  • Nickolai

    They might want to retain water landing as a backup. I’m sure they will do lots of self-funded ground testing before attempting it on a return from orbit. Their ground testing will likely be enough to satisfy NASA as long as it’s rigorous enough. Think, for example, about taking the Dragon up on a helicopter, releasing it and testing the landing system that way.

  • windbourne

    No, they will not lose any payload capability. The reason is that the payload capability was sold as a v1.0. The rocket that will be used will be V1.1 which has an extra 3 tonnes payload available. And, if I understand correctly, this will not have a parachute. Instead, they use fuel all the way down.

  • Nickolai

    Yes, they will lose payload capability. It’s not a marketing question, it’s a physics based one. A Falcon 9 v1.1 not attempting a flyback will have more fuel to use than a Falcon 9 v1.1 attempting flyback. And if they’re going to thrust all the way down I imagine that would be a fairly substantial amount of fuel? Maybe enough to reduce payload capacity significantly. In the end though I doubt the loss in capability will affect any of their missions. If it did they wouldn’t try this, or they’d re-arrange their missions somehow (i.e. try this on a mission with a slightly lighter payload).

  • In theory you are right. But in reality they leave some margin for the fuel to deal with engine out possibility. So the extra fuel is always there whether you use it or not. In that sense, they are not losing payload capability.

  • Nickolai

    I’m not sure what you mean by ‘margin for the fuel to deal with engine out possibility’ – in case of an engine out, the propellant it would have used is fed to the remaining engines, which will run longer as a result.

  • In the end though I doubt the loss in capability will affect any of their missions. If it did they wouldn’t try this…

    Exactly; first stage re-use makes sense because each pound spent on re-use costs less than one pound of payload (unlike upper-stage re-use where it’s pound for pound; which is why the Shuttle was a bad design for a reusable system from first principles). Zubrin works it out in his book,

    Finally, the negative payload impact of adding those systems required for reusability is much less if they are put on the lower stage than the upper. In a typical two-stage-to-orbit system, for example, every kilogram of extra dry mass added to the lower stage reduces the payload delivered to orbit by about 0.1 kilogram, whereas a kilogram of extra dry mass on the upper stage causes a full kilogram of payload loss.

    Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization.

  • Lower thrust will require more fuel usage. You have to fight gravity losses longer when thrust decreases.

  • yg1968

    Here is the (zipped) mp3 file of the March 27th SpaceX/NASA teleconference: