A concept for recovering reusable spacecraft or capsules, or reusable rocket boosters, has them land on an airbag-based, cushioned platform positioned on a highly maneuverable hovercraft. This landing method would have performance advantages over conventional approaches to reusability by placing most of the landing function on the hovercraft while maintaining the safety benefit of an open ocean landing away from populated areas; however, it would be similar to a dry landing as the spacecraft or booster would not enter the water.
The concept is to use a specially designed hovercraft to maintain position directly under a returning vehicle descending on a parachute such that the returning space vehicle lands on the hovercraft. The hovercraft is designed with forward/aft/left/right propulsion for high maneuverability. The hovercraft is covered by a cushioned landing platform that minimizes the landing loads on the space vehicle.
The hovercraft is deployed into the planned landing zone prior to the space vehicle’s return and tracks the returning vehicle as it approaches the landing zone. Once the space vehicle deploys its parachute at high altitude, the hovercraft travels at its top speed to the vehicle’s location and positions itself directly underneath. The hovercraft uses directional thrust to actively maintain a position directly under the uncontrolled descending vehicle, compensating for wind drift, parachute swing, wind gusts, and ocean currents. Once landed, the parachutes are released and the landed vehicle is secured and covered.
Existing ocean-going hovercraft using similar technology (i.e. NAVY LCAC) are capable of speeds over 50 mph (a80 km/h). The combination of low landing loads, no immersion in water, proven parachute decent system, and use of existing landing zones make the hovercraft landing system a low-cost system approach to reusability that is competitive with other reusable space vehicle systems that incorporate the landing systems into the flight vehicle.
This work was done by George Sarver of Ames Research Center.