Ten days before Christmas 2017, a Falcon 9 rocket blasted a Dragon spacecraft into orbit. The first stage then performed a series of engine burns and landed safely along the Florida coastline. The core has remained in storage since then.
Absent a costly, time-consuming renovation, this “full-thrust” Falcon 9 rocket will never fly into space again. SpaceX prefers to re-fly its newer “Block 5” version of the Falcon 9, which incorporated reuse lessons learned from earlier flights like the ones this rocket core had made. This rocket’s job, therefore, was seemingly done.
But William Harris, the president and chief executive of Space Center Houston, thought he knew of a way rockets like this one could still serve the aerospace enterprise, albeit in a different way. Although such a Falcon 9 rocket would no longer fire its engines, it could still inflame the enthusiasm of young people.
“Our goal with Space Center Houston is really learning [and] to excite the public about space exploration,” Harris said in an interview. “This was an opportunity to do just that.”
So last year, Harris visited SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, and asked if the company would consider donating a used Falcon 9 rocket for display at the Houston facility, which is the official visitor’s center for Johnson Space Center. Space Center Houston is the No.1 tourist destination in the Houston area, Harris told the company.
The rocket would allow the museum to educate visitors about what is happening in space now, in addition to the past. And displaying a Falcon 9 rocket would allow SpaceX to share its vision for the future of spaceflight, with lower-cost, reusable boosters.
As it turns out, SpaceX was interested. The company would be happy to donate the rocket that flew both the 11th and 13th supply missions to the International Space Station, its officials told Harris. This particular core also has some historical heft, as it is the first Falcon 9 rocket NASA agreed to fly a second time.
Space Center Houston hopes to take possession of the booster sometime this summer and immediately put it on horizontal display near the entrance to the museum. Exactly when the facility gets the booster is up to SpaceX. “We’re a little bit dependent upon them for when they’re ready to transport it,” Harris said. “They’ve got a lot of things on their plate, obviously.”
This kind of interaction with museums is new for SpaceX, as it has historically focused on flying rockets into space, not putting them into museums. Harris said the company is being generous in pulling employees off some projects to help move the Falcon 9 core and assist the Houston museum with designing displays.
The rocket will be displayed as is, complete with singed marks due to atmospheric reentry and engine firing. Initially, the rocket will be elevated horizontally, nearly four meters off the ground, allowing visitors to walk around and underneath the vehicle. (In a nice touch, the walkway will be shaped like the SpaceX logo). Eventually, perhaps in about a year, Harris said the Falcon 9 will be displayed vertically. But this will require additional engineering to safely secure the rocket, especially given Houston’s propensity for hurricanes and other types of severe weather.
Presently, a used Falcon 9 rocket is on display in only one location around the world: in front of SpaceX’s headquarters. Later this year, Harris said he expects other museums around the United States may also acquire used Falcon 9 boosters, so by displaying one horizontally to start, Space Center Houston has a good chance to be the first site after the SpaceX factory.
It is not clear how durable the rocket will be in the elements, given the Bayou City’s humid climate. Over time, Harris said the museum will perform its usual conservation work to ensure the Falcon 9 core remains in pristine condition. He anticipates it will quickly become one of Space Center Houston’s greatest attractions.
“SpaceX does such a brilliant job of marketing their launches with their webcasts,” Harris said. “We feel confident that people will want to come and see one of these rockets up close and personal.”
We’re pretty confident in that, too.
Listing image by Space Center Houston