Musk: SpaceX Plans to Re-Fly Falcon 9 in June

Coming In Credit: SpaceX

Coming In
Credit: SpaceX

He declined to talk about his company’s plans for Mars, and seemed surprisingly apprehensive regarding the challenges in launching Falcon Heavy, but Elon Musk’s remarks at a post flight news conference for the CRS-8 mission dropped a bombshell that likely sent his competitors to bed with a stiff drink, if not stronger stuff.

Having previously suggested that SpaceX would like to re-fly a Falcon 9 first stage by the end of the year, Musk surprised nearly everyone by confidently asserting that the time frame was instead late May or more realistically June. Moreover, the odds were favorable that it would be a paying launch. The predictions say quite a bit about where SpaceX is in the process of determining the actual re-usability of the Falcon 9 first stage, and if a customer is forthcoming, what their own vetting process has concluded.

Both would appear to strongly support, or at least not conflict with, Musk’s assertion that the Falcon 9 can be re-flown “10-20 times” as is, and up to 100 times with “minor refurbishment.” The range is a wide one to be sure, but even with the most conservative estimates, it suggests that SpaceX’s 30% price reduction for launch aboard a previously flown Falcon 9 is merely a starting point. Moreover, it is one sensibly set due to the lack of credible competition. That Musk is still focused on recovering and re-using the two piece payload fairing which is jettisoned early in satellite launches in order to save “a few million” re-enforces this fact. (It is also would help solve an obvious manufacturing bottleneck.)

The way SpaceX plans to demonstrate that confidence is to transport the returned Falcon first stage not to Cape Canaveral’s SLC-40 which has a full slate, but instead to launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, which the company has been converting to support future NASA launches, as well as Falcon Heavy. Once there, engineers would conduct a series of up to 10 test firings. If nothing bad happens, it is time to gas and go.

Though in some ways it seems an absurd way to characterize such a truly remarkable achievement, Friday’s ASDS touchdown, as Musk assessed, was the result of decision between a high margin ship landing and a low margin return to land.” Given the choice, and with two much more difficult highly energetic GTO launches next on the manifest, SpaceX felt it was a good opportunity to demonstrate that ocean landings are feasible. In a meeting before the launch, the mission team privately predicted that the odds were 2:1 in favor of success. And that was with 50 MPH winds in the landing area.

As for ocean conditions, Musk stated that the ASDS which was operating in 2 to 3 degrees pitch and roll, and with vertical translation under one meter, can provide a sufficiently stable landing platform at double or triple that level. One can only imagine how eager SpaceX is to begin flying out of its Boca Chica, Texas spaceport, where the comparatively placid Gulf of Mexico means that capability will rarely be put  to the test.

For now however, most of the attention will be in the Atlantic. The odds will not be nearly so good on the next two launches, where residual propellant will tell the tale, but with every flight a data point for its constantly iterative design process, SpaceX is confident that in the very near future, nearly all Falcon 9 booster cores will be recovered. In the near term, the breakdown is 50/50 between water and concrete, but in the longer term that figure should shift to 66-75% landings back “on the hard.”

Each flight which makes it back to Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral signifies a further reduction in marginal, but not fixed costs, as the drone ship and its support vessels stay in port.

Come to think of it, aerospace executives in both Colorado and France might just as well have started their respective Saturdays with a Bloody Mary and a long walk in the park.  SpaceX is after all, already at work figuring out how to improve on yesterday’s results.

 

 

 

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1 Comment on "Musk: SpaceX Plans to Re-Fly Falcon 9 in June"

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  1. PK Sink says:

    Yeah, successfully re flying this bird for a paying customer would remove the last bit of cover that SpaceX’s competitors have been hiding behind for so long. Interesting times indeed.

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