SpaceX’s Next Steps Toward Rocket Reusability

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Over the weekend, SpaceX revealed that there was no damage found on their recovered Falcon 9 and it was ready to be fired again.

SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, shared some of the first photos of the rocket from a hangar at Cape Canaveral. The recovered Falcon 9 was launched to space on December 21st and brought back safely to the ground. Many labeled this achievement as a game changer for the rocket industry.

 

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Image courtesy SpaceX

Musk tweeted that the recovered rocket was ready to fire again. However, it’s not likely to be used for another launch. Instead, it will simply be used in a static fire test. In a press call after the successful landing, Musk said, “I think we’ll probably keep this one on the ground, just… it’s kind of unique, it’s the first one we’ve brought back.”

To many, this recovered rocket is a national treasure and belongs in a museum. To SpaceX, it’s the first rocket they’ve successfully brought back after a mission. They probably want to test the hell out of it to understand exactly what happens to a rocket after it’s launched and recovered. These tests could put the rocket through its paces and it may be too risky to use it for another launch. If the first recovered rocket failed on its second flight, it would place an enormous setback on the path to rocket reusability.

A static fire test means that the rocket will be held down to the ground as the engines are fired and analyzed. SpaceX will use this test to verify that the recovered rocket would work in the event that they wanted to use it for a second flight. Musk has stated that within the next year they plan to launch over a dozen flights and that they will “probably” try to re-fly one of their recovered boosters in the same time-frame. So it may be a while before we see a recovered rocket used for a second flight.

The reasons to be patient with reusing a rocket are obvious. Placing a multi-million dollar payload on top of a mint condition rocket is risky enough. Future SpaceX customers will want undeniable proof that their ride to space is in perfect condition before betting their payload on it. The image of the returned rocket may be enough to make future customers nervous. A launch is an intense experience and the image of the retrieved rocket shows that much of it is covered in soot.

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Close Up of Recovered Falcon 9 First Stage/ Credit SpaceX

 

We can compare this image to a photo of the rocket prior to launch.

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Image courtesy SpaceX

 

The dark parts on the rocket after launch are due to soot accumulated from the launch. The clean, triangular white spaces along the bottom end were created by the landing legs that were folded up during launch.

Some have theorized that the clean space around the middle may be due to the liquid oxygen (LOX) tank that’s held there. The LOX would keep that part of the rocket very cold and prevent hot ash from scorching or sticking to that area.

SpaceX isn’t the only company working on rocket reusability. In November, Jeff Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, also brought their rocket, New Shepard, back to the ground in a less technically difficult landing after launching it to space. And in April, the United Launch Alliance announced early plans of their own reusable rocket, the Vulcan.

Reusable rockets are expected to cut launch costs by more than half. Musk has stated that the cost of a Falcon 9 is around $60 million to manufacture while the fuel itself is only $200,000. But the path to rocket reusability will be a long one, and it’s going to get more expensive before it gets cheaper. Safely landing the rocket is simply the first step. SpaceX will need to conduct further tests to prove that recovered rockets are consistently reliable.

Safely retrieving a rocket after a launch (rather than tossing it away in the ocean) has clear cost benefits. But for any type of savings to be realized, a customer will need to purchase a launch on a recovered SpaceX Falcon 9. Safely returning a rocket to Earth after it’s been to space is impressive alone, but securing companies willing to put their products on a reused rocket will be the necessary key to unlock the benefits of reusability.