Falcon Descent Bodes Well for Next Effort and Beyond

Image Credit : Elon Musk

Before it was lost to massive waves roiling the Atlantic Ocean, the Falcon 9 first stage which helped send the DSCOVR spacecraft on its way to deep space Wednesday, sent out a resounding message of its own, the next space age is about to begin.

Even before a Sunday launch scrub due to problems with an Air Force radar tracking system, SpaceX estimated the odds of a successful stage return in what were then ideal conditions as 50/50 at best.

Coming on the heels of the recent January 10 recovery attempt which very nearly succeeded, it initially appeared that SpaceX might be sandbagging. That was, until VP of Mission Assurance Hans Koeinigsmann explained that compared to the last attempt, the demands of the DSCOVR launch would see the Falcon 9 slam back down into the atmosphere with twice the dynamic force of the previous attempt. And even though this rocket would carry a bigger reservoir of hydraulic fluid to operate the four hypersonic grid fins, it would also have less residual fuel for maneuvers.

It was for these two reasons that even before the waves began to build, recovery teams were stationed further away from the Automated Spaceport Drone Ship Just Read the Instructions.  The instructions it seems, said to stay away from a descending rocket which might not be able to find its target.

As it turned out however, the Falcon 9 was able to find its target, now an arbitrary spot on the heaving sea rather than the deck of a ship, and indeed came within 30 feet of dead center before the terminating thrust. Given the prevailing conditions, it was quite an accomplishment. It is also highly significant in terms of what it means for the future beyond the next effort.

After SpaceX came within a few seconds of landing on the ASDS during the CRS-5 launch, it was already apparent that the company would be succeeding much sooner than anyone might have imagined. For less demanding launches such as those to LEO, the future was clear even if it wasn’t yet secured. In performing as well as it did in the DSCOVR launch however, the Falcon 9 first stage has demonstrated that it can withstand punishing returns targeting a much longer distance down range.

In short, SpaceX can now realistically project recovering all three cores for the Falcon Heavy, even on the most demanding of flights. Demonstrating re-use is still another matter, but expect that domino to fall surprisingly easy. Quite simply the company would not have been putting so much effort into booster recovery if prior tests in McGregor, Texas did not convince decision makers that if the stage can be landed, it can be re-flown. Again and again.

The takeaway from Wednesday is not simply that Falcon 9-R will work, it is that SpaceX will soon have a fully reusable first stage and a heavy lift rocket which can also be reused in virtually any application, not just the “easy” ones.

SLS, ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for you.


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8 Comments on "Falcon Descent Bodes Well for Next Effort and Beyond"

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  1. C Mills says:


    For the pros the check in here from time to time-

    I assume a re-manufactured booster would not be (initially) human rated- but what of the eelv? Would the USAF/Recon folks allow a reman booster- or would reman boosters strictly be commercial? (perhaps to initally launch SpaceX/Google Internet satellite constellation at a much lower launch cost) Also, does the booster remain as is- or are the engines removed/reused?

    • Zed_WEASEL says:

      Not a pro.

      But you are mistaken about the re-manufactured booster part. The Falcon 9 is suppose to be refurbished without major dis-assembly, Until we get a booster to examine, that may or may not be true.

      The Merlin engines in the Falcon 9 is design for 40 cycles before inspection & refurbishment of worn parts. SpaceX defines a cycle to mean every time they lit the engine. Again that may or may not be true with real world experience.

      It is up to the USAF & NRO to determine if they will take the risk of using a cheap used booster that is about $40 million or use a new EELV or Falcon 9 booster. IIRC the vanilla no add-on version of the Atlas V is about $240 millions, with the Delta IV about 50% more expansive and the Falcon 9 halved as expansive. More capable variants of the EELVs are of course more expansive. The Delta IV Heavy tri-core launcher vehicle is rumored to be about $500 million per flight. Note that these prices are only for the USAF & NRO due to additional launch service requirements, it is cheaper for commercial customers.

      For some payloads like GPS satellites the EELVs are over-qualified for the task.

  2. Vonn-Chinn says:

    Excellent article Mr. Money. I feel your joy and excitement. The future of New Space is bright and full of new discovery/adventure.

    • Stewart Money says:

      Thanks. This is a very exciting time
      As Billy Joel said, the good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems

  3. RandyP says:

    I think many are missing the point of re-use. It will be successful only when “already proven” vehicles are worth more than “unproven” (i.e. just manufactured) vehicles. Airplanes are not “remanufactured” for each flight and are more reliable after they have been used for a while. What follows is considered normal maintenance with occasional engine overhauls. I’m not sure SpaceX will get to that point but that clearly must be the goal.

    • Vonn-Chinn says:

      Excellent point and analogy with airline. To be operationally like an airline has been Musk stated goal. Having seen how the Tesla car is constantly improve upon through progressive manufacturing resulting from owners experience, I venture to say that at least one Falcon 9N recovered will be stripped apart and retested looking for any degradation after each and every recovery. Results from these strip down will be used to improve the rocket. So, I am hopeful that Falcon 9N will be like an airplane.

  4. giggleherz says:

    My guess is that they will take one of the used engines and fly it with eight new one’s. On the other hand Space X might inspect and refuel the first stage and fly it just for a demo flight or maybe use it to launch and test a Dragon crew abort. Space X did state that they want to refuel launch and fly-back to base.

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