Historic Falcon 9 Booster Now Stands Proud At SpaceX HQ

Activity was spotted outside SpaceX headquarters in the early morning hours of August 20, which hinted that the company’s first recovered Falcon 9 first stage booster was finally set to be raised for permanent display. The booster had been repositioned during the night from a storage location down the road to the front of the SpaceX building where two large cranes remained poised in wait at either end of the rocket.

Falcon 9 stands tall at SpaceX HQ as Mars looks on in the distance. Credit: Pauline Acalin

The Falcon 9-021 launched on Dec 21, 2015 from Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 40 in Florida. Kerosene and liquid oxygen (LOX) were used as propellant, pushing the primary mission en route to successfully delivering 11 ORBCOMM communications satellites to low-earth orbit. The first stage booster returned about 9 minutes 45 seconds after liftoff, landing triumphantly at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) about 6 miles from the launch site, making it the world’s first orbital rocket to land back on Earth.

Two cranes worked to hoist the booster from horizontal to vertical position in front of SpaceX headquarters. Credit: Pauline Acalin

CEO and chief technology officer of SpaceX, Elon Musk, stated shortly after the recovery of the first stage, “It’s a revolutionary moment. No one has ever brought a booster, an orbital-class booster, back intact.” Musk had also indicated that this particular booster would not join future recovered rockets in their prospective re-launches but, once inspected, would eventually be displayed at SpaceX HQ.

A crane bearing the 51,000 lb stage nearly completes its pivot, which had the rocket dangling over Crenshaw Blvd. Credit: Pauline Acalin

The spectacle of watching a 23,133kg (51,000 lb) cylinder being hoisted from a horizontal to vertical position was nothing short of majestic. Once the massive rocket had been raised completely upright, the crane now bearing the entire load gradually pivoted approximately 190 degrees clockwise, bringing the rocket to the precise spot where it could be lowered into position. During this grand maneuver, which lasted only a few minutes, auto and pedestrian traffic were held back as the dangling rocket swiveled its way over Crenshaw Blvd. like an epic Tinkertoy operation.

Workers preparing the Falcon’s landing legs for later attachment to the main booster. Credit: Pauline Acalin

Final presentation has the Falcon’s four landing legs extended and bolted in place, as well as its hypersonic grid fins fanned out, which are used to control pitch, yaw, and roll during reentry. Internal air pressure of the stage will be kept at a constant 5 psi (pounds per square inch) to prevent the shell from crumpling under its own weight. Approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was needed due to the height of the booster being in close proximity to Hawthorne Municipal Airport. Permission was granted with the agency’s request that red lights be added to the rocket to alert passing aircraft.

The Falcon landing legs in full deployment are quite a sight to behold. Credit: Pauline Acalin

The goal of SpaceX is rocket reusability, and years of experimental trial have been poured into the success of this initial feat, but Elon Musk has reiterated that once these landings become routine and people don’t care about them anymore, then he will have been successful. The company has since landed 5 more first stage boosters, one on land and four on their autonomous drone ship used for making landings at sea.

The booster standing free of support. Credit: Pauline Acalin

“Rocket reusability,” Musk says, “is the key to making human life