Skip to comments.SpaceX Set to Launch the World’s First Reusable Booster
Posted on 03/13/2014 11:34:43 PM PDT by Vince Ferrer
On Sunday, if all goes well, Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, will achieve a spaceflight first.
After delivering cargo to the International Space Station, the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket used for the flight will fire its engines for the second time. The burn will allow the rocket to reenter the atmosphere in controlled flight, without breaking up and disintegrating on the way down as most booster rockets do.
The machine will settle over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of its Cape Canaveral launchpad, engines roaring, and four landing legs will unfold from the rockets sides. Hovering over ocean, the rocket will kick up a salt spray along with the flames and smoke. Finally, the engines will cut off and the rocket will drop the last few feet into the ocean for recovery by a waiting barge.
Future flights of the so-called F9R rocket will have it touching down on land. For now, a water landing ensures maximum safety in case the rocket goes off course.
The test of SpaceXs renewable booster rocket technology will be the first of its kind and could pave the way to radically cheaper access to space. Reusability has been the Holy Grail of the launch industry for decades, says Jeff Foust, an analyst at Futron, a consultancy based in Bethesda, Maryland. Thats because the so-called expendable rockets that are the industry standard add enormously to launch coststhe equivalent of building a new aircraft for every transatlantic flight.
SpaceX began flying low-altitude tests of a Falcon 9 first stage with a single engine, a rocket known as Grasshopper, at its McGregor, Texas, proving grounds in 2012. The flights got progressively higher, until a final test in October, when the rocket reached an altitude of 744 meters. Then, following a flight to place a communications satellite in geosynchronous orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in November, a Falcon 9 first stage successfully restarted three of its nine engines to make a controlled supersonic reentry from space.
The rocket survived reentry, but subsequently spun out of control and broke up on impact with the Pacific Ocean. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in a call with reporters after the flight that landing legs, which that rocket lacked, would most likely have stabilized the rocket enough to make a controlled landing on the water. The March 16 flight will be the first orbital test with landing legs.
After recovering the rocket from the water on Sunday, SpaceX engineers and technicians will study it to determine what it would take to refurbish such a rocket for reuse. SpaceX also has plans to recover and reuse the second stage rocket, but for now, it will recover only the first stage and its nine Merlin engines, which make up the bulk of the cost of the rocket.
Even without reusable rockets, SpaceX has already shaken up the $190-billion-a-year satellite launch market with radically lower launch costs than its competitors. The company advertises $55.6 million per Falcon 9 launch. Its competitors are less forthcoming about how much they charge, but French rocket company Arianespace has indicated that it may ask for an increase in government subsidies to remain competitive with SpaceX.
Closer to home, SpaceX is vying for so-called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, contracts to launch satellites for the U.S. Air Force. Its only competitor for the contracts, United Launch Alliance, charges $380 million per launch.
Musk testified before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense meeting on March 5 that his company can cut that cost down to $90 million per launch. He said the higher cost for a government mission versus a commercial one was due to a lack of government-provided launch insurance. So, in order to improve the probability of success, there is quite a substantial mission assurance overhead applied, Musk said in the hearing. Still, SpaceXs proposed charge for the Air Force missions is a mere 23 percent of ULAs.
SpaceX is counting on lower launch costs to increase demand for launch services. But Foust cautions that this strategy comes with risk. Its worth noting, he says, that many current customers of launch services, including operators of commercial satellites, arent particularly price sensitive, so thus arent counting on reusability to lower costs.
That means those additional launches, and thus revenue, may have to come from markets that dont exist yet. A reusable system with much lower launch costs might actually result in lower revenue for that company unless they can significantly increase demand, says Foust. That additional demand would likely have to come from new markets, with commercial human spaceflight perhaps the biggest and best-known example.
Indeed, SpaceX was founded with human spaceflight as its ultimate mission. It is now one of three companies working with NASA funds to build ships capable of sending astronauts to the International Space Station. Musk plans to take SpaceX even furtherall the way to Mars with settlers. And colonizing Mars will require lots of low-cost flights.
Especially if they can scale up to heavy lift.
The launch has been delayed until the end of March.
That's amazing all by itself.
But, eventually something else HAD to come along. I'd sure like to know how much this technology differs from what's in dominant use today in US and Russia.
And let's hope the Norks or Iranians don't get their hands on it.
The Space Shuttle was a reusable booster.
Government has been almost the exclusive customer, along with communications companies, because they are the ones who can afford it. Bring down the price, and new applications will open up. There are also efforts to radically bring down the price of satellites. For instance, there is an effort to bring global wifi access through a satellite constellation. Think of what that could do for robotics, and freedom of speech. I would like global Wifi for journalism that can't be censored. Asteroid mining would become practical. There are a world of applications that would open up.
yup, imagine a refurbishable Saturn V.
I will be glad when we can rely on SpaceX instead of the Russians to get people to the ISS.
Touché. Except for the external fuel tank the whole thing was reusable. The only problem is that it costed almost half a $billion to refurbish after each launch. Almost as much as it would cost to build another one.
I think that reflects commercial enterprises as well, at least to some extent.
If you’re going to pay millions to launch a satellite into orbit, it’s probably more important to have a successful launch than it is to scrimp on a few bucks.
The shuttle was a nice try at reusability, but in practice fell far short. The main fuel tank (orange) was completely expendable. The solid rocket motors (white) were recovered, but the amount of repair work needed to use them again put the price of reuse to be not much less than building new ones. The orbiter was the reusable part, but even it had to go through very expensive repairs and checks between flights.
The goal of the Spacex reusable rockets, is to have minimal repairs between flights, ideally just to refuel it.
Reusable is one thing; cheap access to space is something else. SpaceX is about to learn that lesson.
Europe is broke. Good luck with that.
At least they are trying. In fact, there are a lot of innovative groups out there, Spacex is just one. One of them can probably be successful.
That’s a point I’ve heard before. Which is why things like simple washers and rivets are made from gold or titanium. Better to have them last a while than replace them too shortly.
SpaceX is teaching lessons.
They are cutting cost to access space by about 3/4.
spacex shows us that $20 billion/year nasa funding is a waste of money. Spacex isn’t even operating with $20billion/year and yet could achieve more than nasa
The SRB on the shuttle was supposed to be reusable too
You can put down the SpaceX Kool-Aid now.
NASA has a contract with SpaceX for ISS re-supply. That 12 flight contract costs the government $1.6 billion or, $133 million per flight. The up-mass for a single Falcon 9/Dragon is 7300 lbs. That costs out at $18,219 per pound of supplies delivered to ISS.
For comparison, the costs of delivery to ISS by Shuttle were around $10,000 per pound. That makes SpaceX about 80% more expensive than Shuttle, at least for this purpose.
Welcome to the revolution.
Iirc that’s the opposite extreme, assuming that the Shuttle was hauling up it’s full capacity each launch.
Which, after the ISS construction ended wasn’t going to happen any more. In fact, I think that the most the shuttle could haul up were two of those ESA pressurized cargo modules due to the docking port limitations on the Destiny module. And NASA really didn’t plan for ever hauling up more than one.
Appears they weren’t that Set to Launch.
Oh, the promises they made when they first proposed this system. Dozens of flights per year, days turnaround....impossibly optimistic claims. Just like government always does when they want to spend your money.
This isn’t reusable, but it would be cheap, and it’s scalable.
This has always bothered me. Several organizations attempted to get the government to leave the tanks in orbit for future use. We spent a lot of money to get that hardware up there, and NASA just let the stuff burn up in reentry. There were engineering studies done that indicated they could have been used for many things, from habitats, to raw materials.
I remember FReeper Physicist once saying that it would be cheaper to launch a new Hubble telescope than to do a repair mission.
Totally bitchin’. Shows the difference from government (disposable parts) and private (reusable parts) solutions.