SpaceX and Drones – Capturing history, one flight at a time

SpaceX has long utilized drones to capture the progress of its programs. From Grasshopper to Starship, we take a look through SpaceX’s history, as seen by its drones.

Drones can be an invaluable tool in evaluating a system’s performance, along with providing great views to share. SpaceX takes full advantage of drones in most of its work. We see drones regularly used during Starship test campaigns to check the status of equipment and provide additional camera angles for review. But let’s start at the beginning, Grasshopper.

Grasshopper – You have to hop before you can land

Grasshopper was the first Vertical Takeoff, Vertical Landing (VTVL) vehicle on the company’s road to reusable vehicles. The 10-story tall rocket featured just one Merlin engine and was fairly basic. The purpose of the vehicle was to test software and hardware before rolling them out to the production vehicles. For those more familiar with Starship, this is essentially Starhopper but for the Falcon rocket. Starhopper conducted multiple hop tests, each higher than the last.


Falcon 9R – Full Scale Test Bed

Following the completion of the Grasshopper program, SpaceX moved onto Falcon 9 Reusable (F9R). This vehicle was the same size as the Falcon 9 that was flying at the time and allowed continued testing. SpaceX had big ambitions with the F9R program, including tests in New Mexico that would allow for higher altitudes and unpowered descent to better simulate flight environments. This would never happen. Instead, the testing would be confined to their McGregor facility. Ultimately the F9R vehicle would reach a grim end, being destroyed during a test flight.


Falcon 9 and Fairing Recovery – Gotta get those sick views

SpaceX has used drones outside of its test programs, however. Drone views have been piped into the launch live streams on occasion and have provided some excellent views. While a drone didn’t capture the view of the first-ever Falcon 9 to land, we have had aerial views of other landings

SpaceX also spent some time trying to catch its payload fairings. Each fairing costs about $6 million so being able to reuse them could help cut costs. However, catching fairings out of the air turned out to be a tricky problem to solve. SpaceX had a few successful catches, but most fairings – that weren’t destroyed upon landing – were fished out of the water.

SpaceX has since abandoned the idea of catching fairings and now just picks them up out of the water.


Starship Development – One day they won’t explode, right?

SpaceX is currently developing its next-generation superheavy launch vehicle out of Boca Chica, Texas. The first vehicle of the program was called Starhopper. Very similar to Grasshopper, this vehicle was only meant to do short hops. Ultimately, this vehicle didn’t heavily impact the program. In my opinion, it was mostly for publicity. But SpaceX was quickly moving towards vehicles that mirrored the design of Starship. Starship SN5 and SN6 both conducted 150-meter hop tests.

Following these tests came the big flights. SpaceX would fly its prototype vehicles to an altitude of ~10km, reorient the vehicle to the “bellyflop” position to use fins for aerodynamic control, then relight engines to reorient the vehicle to vertical before softly touching down. The first flight following this profile was Starship SN8, but this stream and highlight video didn’t feature any drone video. However, the SN9 and 10 flights that followed did.

While both SN8 and 9 failed to land in one piece, SN10 did. Well… it did for a few minutes. The vehicle blew up shortly after landing due to a not-so-soft touchdown. SN11’s flight, which was heard versus seen due to thick fog, experienced a failure at engine ignition before landing. SN15 would be the first Starship to successfully complete the flight profile and stay intact following the touchdown.


Featured image by Derek Wise for Space Explored.

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