Elon Musk really understands the internet. This is, of course, news only to newborns and the recently coma-awoken, but it's impressive to see in action. This weekend, Musk tweeted about 'X-wing' developments to his rocket, making a technical recovery system seem like sci-fi, even if it actually makes perfect sense.

Here's the X-wings Musk was talking about:

Of course, these aren't the same kind of thing that fiction shows us is very bad for Death Stars, but the configuration does form a sort of 'X' and Elon knows what attracts attention. What those gridded panels actually do is deploy when the rocket is descending back to Earth, where they significantly help to stabilize and steer the rocket.


These seem like a novel, simple, and great solution to the tricky problem of recovering a descending rocket, but the truth is this solution is not originally Musk's or from SpaceX, and it's not inspired by the famed Star Wars fighter craft, either. This very same basic method can be seen on every manned Soyuz rocket since the late 1960s.

The Soyuz rocket uses the four deployable mesh panels for pretty much exactly the same reason as Musk is employing them — to stabilize a rocket section upon vertical re-entry. The big difference is that unlike SpaceX's system, which is designed to help land a re-usable rocket intact, the Soyuz uses the grid fins as part of its launch escape system.

See, if there's every trouble on the launch pad or with the rocket itself, a Soyuz rocket can eject the topmost section via a set of solid rockets housed in that very topmost 'spike.' The rockets pull the entire manned Soyuz capsule (really, three modules), still inside its aerodynamic fairing, up off the doomed rocket and up and out to safety. The grid fins keep the escape system stable as it descends back to Earth.


This launch escape system only actually had to be used once, back in 1983. But, it did work, in part thanks to those funny-looking little wafflemakers on the side of the rocket.

It's a great idea for SpaceX to use these sorts of fins, exactly as they're used on the Soyuz — it's a proven idea, and it makes no sense to re-invent the wheel. Or wafflemaker. But what all this really shows is how much mainstream attention you can get by referencing a giant of science-fiction. If he just called the stabilization system "Soyuz Launch Escape atmospheric grid panels adapted to Falcon 9 recovery stabilzation use" you couldn't get people excited about it even if it was covered in sprinkles (or, depending on where you are, "Jimmies.")

But by calling it an 'X-wing config' all of a sudden, people give a shit. To the point that they may actually be overlooking the really cool part in the news system, autonomous drone landing/recovery ships. Thing robotic floating helipad-type things that can keep stable even in a full-on storm:

Now that is cool. Too bad there were no Star Wars ships that looked like that.