SpaceX founder Elon Musk has tweeted the above image of the Falcon 9 V1.1 currently being readied for the NASA Commercial Resupply 3 (CRS-3) mission scheduled for March 17th. After some speculation due to scheduling, there is now no doubt that the next phase of the company’s efforts to develop first stage re-usability is about to begin.
As a second tweet from Musk confirmed, the upcoming flight will not include an attempt at landing on solid Earth. Instead “F9 will continue to land in the ocean until we prove precision control from hypersonic to subsonic regimes.” Provided the company can once again successfully restart the first stage after stage separation and bring it back into the lower atmosphere, the 60 ft span legs should help to stabilize the spin which occurred on the first, and so far only attempt at a soft landing which took place on the booster’s maiden flight, and caused it to lose propellant flow and “flame out.”
As it was, the first stage still hit the water in a vertical position and under a semblance of control, but at a high speed. With numerous chances to get it right, SpaceX has the luxury of taking a methodical approach to this most radical of achievements, and for the upcoming launch, successful deployment of the legs and a modest increase in control with corresponding reduction in final velocity would seem to constitute a major success.