DALLAS – SpaceX just proved that it can send a 14-story rocket booster into space and then land it successfully back on Earth. It is something the company had never managed to do before but is essential if Elon Musk has any hope of dramatically cutting the cost of reaching space.
For its next trick, SpaceX will need to master the mundane: launching, landing, refueling, and promptly launching the same rocket again—just like an airplane.
Musk has used the airplane analogy numerous times. The idea is that one day he will have a fleet of airplane-like boosters that can be used many times, turning single-use rockets like those at United Launch Alliance and Orbital ATK into relics. Achieving that goal, which could also herald quicker launch schedules, could lower costs “probably in excess of a factor of 100,” Musk said Monday night on a conference call after the mission. “This is a fundamental step change in technology compared to any other rockets that have ever flown.”
SpaceX will soon fire the rocket that landed Monday in a static ground test. But Musk said the same rocket won’t fly again. SpaceX has “quite a big flight manifest” with more than 12 launches scheduled for 2016, he noted, and “sometime next year we ought to aim to re-fly one of the rocket boosters.” Reusable rockets aren’t here — yet.
How tricky will a re-launch be?
Musk, of course, downplayed the difficulty. SpaceX has successfully fired the same Falcon 9 rocket boosters more than 10 times on the ground in a full launch mode, he said, to replicate the conditions of an actual launch. But the company concedes that it is not yet clear how routine the process of a quick relaunch can become.
“It’ll take a few years to iron all that out and make sure it all works well,” Musk said Monday. “But I think it works very well for the future.” Over time, he expects that SpaceX will be able to recover “over 99 percent” of the Falcon boosters on launches. Perfecting this process will also lower production costs for SpaceX, which Musk said is currently building a new Falcon 9 rocket every three weeks. A reusable fleet will require less capital expense, helping to curb customer costs and boosting SpaceX’s profit margins.
The anticipation of rocket booster reusability, which is also being pursued by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, has already upended the commercial launch industry. Players such as ULA, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, Orbital ATK, Arianespace SA, and others face pressure from customers to lower their own launch costs. A Falcon 9 rocket costs $60 million to build with only about $200,000 of that for fuel, according to Musk. SpaceX’s standard launch cost, listed as $61.2 million, is lower than rivals’ even before the company begins re-using its rockets.
“The staggering price of spaceflight has been the single greatest deterrent to a thriving space market,” said Hannah Kerner, executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation, which advocates for greater human space exploration and settlement. “What we’re seeing is not just billionaires playing with rockets. It’s actually a clear step toward opening up the space frontier to the average person.”
The Falcon 9 rocket stage used on by SpaceX on Monday delivered 11 commercial satellites into orbit for Orbcomm and then returned to Cape Canaveral.
The operation involved maneuvers to position roughly 125 tons traveling at 5,000 mph, pivoting and then slowing to land vertically. Two earlier attempts to land the rocket booster on a drone platform at sea had failed. The flight was also SpaceX’s first return to space since a malfunction destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket in June shortly after launch.
Musk and Bezos—entrepreneurs now joined in a billionaires’ space race for rocket reusability—have jousted on social media about the successful landings and which company has achieved more. Unlike Blue Origin’s New Shepard space vehicle, which reaches suborbital space, SpaceX sends its rockets much farther to orbit. Unlike Blue Origin, SpaceX has current customers to satisfy.