Disruption: SpaceX Looking at 30% Price Reduction for Falcon 9 Reusable

Slightly Used Rocket 30% Off Credit SpaceX

Slightly Used Rocket 30% Off
Credit SpaceX

An appearance by SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell at the Satellite 2016 conference being held in National Harbor, Maryland is shedding a wealth of new information regarding the company’s plans for the remainder of 2016, including a some interesting insight into what it might charge for a re-flight of previously flown Falcon 9 first stage.

According to media reports of the presentation, an initial re-flight might result in a cost reduction of 30% from the published price of  $61.2 million. That number, while still significant is still quite a bit more than what Shotwell predicted a Falcon 9 re-flight cost might come to after all the kinks are worked out. That figure, somewhere between $5 and $7 million, was put forward during a conference in Singapore in January 2014. (13:17 mark)

That figure however, also included re-use of the second stage, a project which the company has dropped for the time being. For what it is worth, SpaceX’s cutting edge customer SES, which just saw its SES-9 spacecraft lofted to orbit on Friday, has stated that it would like to be the first customer to sign up for a re-flight, but is looking for a better deal, at something on the order of a 50% reduction.

As for just how re-usable the booster will actually be, the initial indications are good:

Shotwell via Spacenews

“[Y]ou pull off the cover and that wire harness is pristine,” she said. “The metal is still shiny. You pull off the thermal protection system that we have near the engine, and that engine is beautiful. It is perfectly clean.

“It was extraordinary how great it looked. In fact we didn’t refurbish it at all. We inspected it and then three days later we put it on the test stand and fired it again. The goal is not to design a vehicle that needs refurbishing. It is to design a vehicle that we can land, move back to the launch pad, and launch again. Hopefully our customers will get comfortable flying the third or fourth time.”

It is that last element, and the appearance of any credible competition, that is likely to determine how low the price of the F9R will ultimately fall. It may take some time to find out.

While SpaceX has disrupted the entire aerospace industry and is on the verge of breaking through the threshold of reusability with the Falcon 9, the company has done so in a very frugal manner, using the closing moments of paid commercial flights as its primary means of testing. This comes in contrast to the program of high altitude flights with a test article at Spaceport America, as the company was contemplating only two years ago. Happily, the change came about due to surprising progress during orbital launch recovery attempts, due in no small part to the lessons learned during 13 flights of the first two test articles, Grasshopper and F9R Dev-1. That same pattern suggests however, that SpaceX will be in no hurry to see how many times it can a Falcon 9 first stage.

With a great deal on its plate, including achieving the 18 total launches SpaceX is attempting to pull off this year, one of which is the Falcon Heavy debut which has now moved to November, even a single re-flight before the calendar changes would be a tall order, but given how badly the company and its founders want to see it happen, this might be one exception to the frugality rule.

Implications of a $40-45 million Falcon 9

While a 30% reduction in the launch price of a Falcon 9 seems unlikely to completely revolutionize the launch industry as we know it today, it clearly has the potential to alter the trajectory of what changes we will see in the future, particularly for other two other American companies, Orbital ATK and United Launch Alliance.

For Orbital ATK’s launch aspirations, the implications are truly grave. Currently the company is looking forward to a 2016 debut for its newly re-powered Antares booster. To that point, Russian news sources announced yesterday that the company has ordered 8 more RD-181 first stage engines, bringing the total thus far to 12. While the immediate future of the medium lift Antares will be secured by its role in launching the Cygnus cargo ship to ISS as part of NASA’s CRS 1 & 2 contracts, finding orders beyond that is going to be a challenge. In fact, it always has been. Originally announced as the Taurus 2 in 2007 with a price estimate at the time in the $40-45 million range, the Antares has yet to record a single commercial satellite launch. If more recent estimates in the $80 million range are accurate, then it is difficult to see how that changes once an even cheaper Falcon 9 is available.

At least the Antares has a number of pre-secured launches going for it, the challenge may be even tougher for the new EELV class booster that Orbital ATK announced late last year. In his most recently quarterly conference earnings report Orbital ATK CEO Dave Thompson downplayed the advantages of reusability:

““There’s been a great deal of discussion about launch vehicle reusability, particularly over the last six months. I think it’s still too early to say whether in the real world of launch rates and refurbishment costs and payload penalties and so on, that relate to reusability whether it’s going to make economic sense to reuse some or a large part of the launch vehicle…

Related: Liberty Reborn or the Future Denied? Orbital ATK’s New EELV Class Rocket

Based on her comments at this week, SpaceX’s Shotwell, while refuting the premise that “refurbishment” is required in the first place, has a number in mind, and it is probably not one that Orbital’s president will like; $3 million. By way of comparison, the last Pegasus booster the company sold to NASA, slotted for the ICON mission in 2017, clocked in at a whopping $56.3 million, a figure which included mission assurance costs.

Combined with the decidedly rougher ride that solid rocket based boosters tend to give their payloads, it is difficult to see a path forward for the completely expendable Orbital ATK project in a changing national security launch market where price competition suddenly matters. Its only hope may be that ULA parent companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin, reading the same tea leaves, decide to pull the plug on the Vulcan booster.

That of course, is precisely what is being tacitly threatened in the timid quarter by quarter funding profile underlined by representatives of both companies at the same conference. Despite the all too familiar theatrics, it is not likely to happen.

As long as the Air Force remains committed to developing and maintaining two independent and dissimilar booster families, something that was not one of the original goals of the EELV program, somebody is going to secure a minimum number of launch opportunities regardless of how low SpaceX lowers its prices. With it stellar launch history and steadfast Congressional support, that supplier will almost certainly continue to be United Launch Alliance.

The real question for ULA, other than the one famously posed by Hamlet, is whether or not its internal analysis suggests that air recovery of first stage BE-4 engines can get actually get it within credible range of the Falcon 9 when looking at other, commercial markets. If it does, then there may not be much time to waste in advancing the idea towards an earlier introduction than the somewhat vague time-frame put forward thus far. Whether it realizes it yet or not, ULA may be looking at a race for second place in the partially reusable booster market, where a solid showing could help carve out market share from international providers who have thus far declined to take the prospects of reusability seriously.

Chief among them is market leading Arianespace, which has seen a series of twists and turn on the development path of its Ariane 6 booster. Now the subject of the Airbus Safran Launchers  joint venture, Europe’s flagship rocket project has already undergone several changes in response to the market disruption caused by SpaceX. Now it may have to look at one more, advancing beyond mere concept studies of the the winged Adeline first stage which Airbus announced last year.

There are any number of other implications to be taken from seeing an approximate price figure assigned to what would be the world’s first partially reusable commercial booster, but for the moment it is worth considering one that has no real impact other than purely symbolic. The F9R would come perilously close to breaking the $1,500 per lb. to LEO barrier.

That only leaves $500 to go before the revolution begins for real.

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