To outside observers, the latest SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch might not have looked particularly remarkable — no streaking contrail through the sky, the rumble muffled a bit by gusty winds.
But after the first stage completed its work and descended to a landing on an ocean platform, Elon Musk said he was rendered nearly speechless.
“This is a huge day,” the SpaceX founder and CEO said after the launch from Kennedy Space Center, joined by his five boys at a celebratory press conference. “My mind is blown, frankly.”
The launch of the commercial satellite marked the first time SpaceX had re-flown a Falcon booster, culminating 15 years of work to prove that large, orbital rockets can be reused.
After successfully launching a satellite toward geosynchronous orbit — 22,000 miles into space — the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket then returned to Earth and landed on a remotely piloted platform, known as a droneship, in the Atlantic Ocean. It was the company’s sixth successful landing on a seaborne platform.
Only seven months earlier, a Falcon rocket had exploded spectacularly on its Cape Canaveral launch pad, SpaceX’s second catastrophic failure in just over a year. A failed flight by a used booster would have been a major setback.
Instead, by Thursday night, Musk’s prophesies about a dramatic reduction in the cost of spaceflight and the potential for getting to Mars seemed more plausible than ever.
“It means that humanity can become a spacefaring civilization and be out there among stars,” he said. “This is what we want for the future.”
From the beginning, Musk has preached that reusable rockets are key to that future.
It remains to be seen how often Falcon rockets can fly, how easily they can be turned around from one flight to another and how much money that saves.
“It’s potentially a big cost-saver and it will make a difference, provided you can re-fly multiple times,” said Ray Lugo, director of the Florida Space Institute at the University of Central Florida, who once oversaw launches of NASA science missions on what were then exclusively “expendable” rockets.
“If this works, over the long term it will be difficult for anyone that throws boosters away to compete.”
People line the fishing pier at Jetty Park to view the historic launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a “flight proven” booster – a booster that has flown on a previous launch.
The Falcon 9 rocket, launched from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space center, is carrying a SES-10 commercial communications satellite built by Airbus Defence and Space and operated by Luxembourg-based
Analyses of reusability have considered both the technical challenges, which SpaceX solved Thursday, and financial questions about how much it costs and how frequently rockets must fly to make the investment worthwhile.
“In the end, reusability is going to be governed by whether or not it passes a business case test,” Mike Griffin, a former NASA administrator, said last fall during an industry conference panel discussion on the subject.
Space shuttles didn’t pass that test, requiring months of refurbishment between flights and never coming close to meeting promises for frequent, low-cost flights. Some concluded reusability wasn’t worth the effort and expense.
SpaceX’s business case is that boosters and their engines represent about two-thirds of the cost of any launch, which the company markets for $62 million for a typical commercial satellite.
During Thursday’s mission, SpaceX for the first time recovered the rocket’s nose cone, which parachuted to the ocean — another potential $6 million savings, if it can be reused.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket’s upper stage would be the only major piece left that is not recovered.
“You’re really looking at maybe three-quarters of the rocket cost dropping by an order of magnitude, and maybe more,” he said.
It will take time for SpaceX to recoup its billion-dollar investment in landing and recovery systems and offer steeper discounts for “flight proven” rockets, but Musk said he expects the economics “to start becoming sensible next year.”
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket should be able to fly 10 times with no refurbishment, he said, and up to 100 times with moderate refurbishment.
His next trick: re-flying Falcons within a day, after only minimal inspections and refueling.
“Now our aspiration will be zero hardware changes, re-flight in 24 hours, the only thing that changes is we reload propellant,” he said. “Just like an aircraft, really.”
That could be worrisome for competitors like United Launch Alliance or Arianespace that do not reuse rockets, at least not yet. Musk said it’s like a plane that can only fly once competing against one that can fly over and over.
“That’s not a very competitive position to be in,” he said. “You really want to have the aircraft that can be flown lots of times.”
Martin Halliwell, chief technology officer of Luxembourg-based SES, whose satellite reached orbit Thursday, said SpaceX had the launch industry “shaking in its boots” several years ago when it showed Falcon rockets could launch communications satellites to high orbits.
“I think it’s shaking now,” he said Thursday. “I really do.”
Of the three missions SES has flown on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets to date, Halliwell said the ride on a recycled booster was the smoothest yet.
“I think we made a little bit of history today, actually, and just opened a door into a whole new era of spaceflight,” he said.
Longer-term, Musk thinks reusability can lead to a 100-fold reduction in the cost to put goods in space.
“It means for the same budget, we can do 100 times more things,” he said. “Mind-blowing, really.”
Source: USA Today | Image credit: Tech Crunch