In a historic first for the company and the industry, SpaceX launched and landed a “flight proven,” or refurbished, Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center.
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A Delta IV rocket carrying the military’s WGS-9 satellite blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Saturday, March 18, 2017.
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SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket blasts off from Kennedy Space Center with the EchoStar 23 communications satellite on Thursday, March 16, 2017.
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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully blasted off from Kennedy Space Center’s historic pad 39A on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. The first stage returned for a successful landing in Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
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An Atlas V rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with the SBIRS missile detection satellite on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017.
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SpaceX launches, lands ‘flight proven’ Falcon 9
Delta IV rocket launches from Cape Canaveral
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches from Kennedy Space Center
Falcon 9 blasts off from KSC, lands at Cape
Atlas V rocket blasts off with missile detection satellite
To outside observers, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launch Thursday evening 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 SES-10 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.
It was a triumphant moment for Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur who since starting SpaceX in 2002 has faced doubters of his unconventional approach to spaceflight and grandiose ambitions to establish a city on Mars.
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.”
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 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 Falcon 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 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.”
Costs may have to drop further to enable a self-sustaining city on Mars.
SpaceX is designing a giant rocket as part of a new “Interplanetary Transport System,” applying lessons learned from Falcon rockets to ensure that it can be flown even more often.
“This is I think a very helpful proof point that it’s possible,” he said Thursday. “And I hope people start to think of it as a real goal to which we should aspire, to establish a civilization on Mars.”
Before that proof was in, Musk felt oddly calm before Thursday’s high-stakes re-launch, nervous that he wasn’t more nervous.
His calm was rewarded with a flawless flight and a historic first that he ranks among his greatest professional accomplishments.
“Definitely one of the best things ever,” said Musk. “That’s 15 years of a lot blood, sweat and tears.”
Contact Dean at 321-242-3668 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @flatoday_jdean.
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