Science Spacebound First Look

Why tonight's launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 will be historic

SpaceX is pioneering a 'reduce, reuse, recycle' approach to space with the second launch of a used Falcon 9. 

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off on a supply mission to the International Space Station from historic launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Feb. 19, 2017.
Joe Skipper/Reuters
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Thursday marks a major milestone in SpaceX’s roadmap to the stars: reusable rockets.

Weather permitting, a Falcon 9 will take off from Florida at 6:27 p.m. Eastern time Thursday evening with SES-10 communications satellite aboard. A successful launch would make history as the first booster rocket to return to orbit, a huge step in SpaceX’s quest to develop quick, cheap access to space.

The first stage booster rocket previously ferried the company’s Dragon supply capsule to the International Space Station in April 2016 before landing on a remote drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean, Space.com reports. SpaceX has successfully recovered eight (out of 13) rockets, but Thursday will be the first attempted re-launch.

The company plans to land the rocket on a barge again, opening up the possibility of the first third launch as well. SpaceX chief executive officer Elon Musk has said he expects Falcon 9s to eventually be capable of 10 to 20 flights.

Luxembourg-based international communications satellite company SES volunteered to serve as guinea pig back in August of 2016. “Having been the first commercial satellite operator to launch with SpaceX back in 2013, we are excited to once again be the first customer to launch on SpaceX's first ever mission using a flight-proven rocket,” chief technology officer Martin Halliwell said in a statement. “We believe reusable rockets will open up a new era of spaceflight, and make access to space more efficient in terms of cost and manifest management.”

Historically rockets have fallen into the ocean after use, resulting in the loss of a machine costing tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to build. In Mr. Musk’s eyes, no one would tolerate disposable cars or planes, so why should we be satisfied with throw-away rockets?

Reuse is “just as fundamental in rocketry as it is in other forms of transport – such as cars or planes or bicycles,” said Musk at a briefing after a launch last year.

Rocket transportation, refueling, and refurbishing costs could eventually cost SpaceX as little as a few million dollars, significantly less than the current $60 million it charges to launch a Falcon 9. A company representative has said it hopes to eventually drop prices by about a third, although SES gets only a 10 percent discount for the maiden re-voyage.

However, space is harsh and its economics are no exception. Unlike cars and bicycles, rockets need substantial testing and refurbishing between uses, and insurance for devices that run on controlled explosions doesn’t come cheap. What's more, even SpaceX’s rockets aren’t fully reusable. The company recovers only the first of the two stages, although the first stage contains the main engines and most of the fuel, accounting for 75 percent of the system’s costs. Landing a rocket takes more fuel too, as much as a third, according to French space agency CNES (avoiding expensive flights all the way back to the launch site is one reason SpaceX lands in the ocean).

All these extra costs could make for razor-thin margins, squeezing aerospace companies to fly as often as possible. A joint French-Russian effort attempted to develop reusable boosters but found that even at 50 launches per year, the savings would be modest.

“Then we would save 10 percent – plus or minus 15 percent,” Christophe Bonnal, a senior expert at CNES, said to Space News. “We have more to learn.”

Other space companies have cited 35-40 annual launches as the tipping point, and an ambitious launch-every-few-weeks schedule suggests SpaceX accountants have landed on a similar figure.

An accelerated launching schedule will help the company’s bottom line, as well as advance its “reduce, reuse, recycle" rocketry goals. After taking the fall and winter off to investigate an explosion, SpaceX currently has a backlog of more than 70 missions, worth more than $10 billion.

And the company is not resting on its laurels either. As the Falcon 9 reuse program gets underway, Space X is also rolling out a larger member of the Falcon family, the Falcon Heavy. This supercharged rocket will feature three potentially reusable first-stage Falcon 9 boosters strapped together, and will offer twice the lifting ability for $90 million dollars per launch. The company hopes it will fly in the spring or summer of this year, and will eventually aim for six flights per year. 

As for full reusability, Musk suggests the second stage goes too far, too fast to make retrieval profitable. “I don’t expect SpaceX’s Falcon line to have a reusable upper stage. With a kerosene-based system, the specific impulse isn’t really high enough to do that, and a lot of the missions we do for commercial satellite deployment are geostationary missions. So we’re really going very far out – these are high delta-velocity missions, so to try and get something back from that is really difficult,” he said in a 2014 MIT interview.

However, he still sees room for improvement when it comes to the rocket’s nose cone, which he would someday like to reuse as well: “That will certainly help, because each of these costs several million,” he said.

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