Elon Musk and SpaceX continue to defy the odds and give us all hope for the future of manned space travel. Back in early April 2016, a Falcon 9 booster was used for CRS-8, a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The Falcon 9 used in that mission was the second successful recovery of a booster by SpaceX, as it landed without incident on a floating drone ship.
Over the past year, SpaceX has been refurbishing the booster, preparing it for a return-to-flight. The booster was stress tested and its engines were test fired on a number of occasions to ensure that it could successfully launch cargo into space (again). Today, SpaceX made us all believers by not only successfully relaunching the recycled Falcon 9, but also landing it once again on its “Of Course I Still Love You” drone ship.
While we were all impressed with the theatrics of SpaceX’s version of “reduce, reuse, recycle”, we can’t forget that the company also successfully put a payload into space from a paying customer. The customer was Luxembourg-based SES, whose SES-10 communications satellite was put into orbit (it will eventually orbit the Earth at a distance of 22,000 miles).
"This is going to be ultimately a huge revolution in spaceflight," said Musk in a video message following the successful landing of the Falcon 9. "It's the difference between if you had airplanes where you threw away an airplane after every flight versus you could reuse them multiple times."[embedded content]
This is a historic moment in space travel, as it could allow SpaceX to dramatically undercut competitors in launch costs. Instead of throwing away boosters after each launch, SpaceX’s ability to reuse components (including costly engines) puts it at a unique advantage. Although Musk believes that certain parts of the Falcon 9 could be used 100 times or more, he has indicated that a more realistic goal will be for each booster to venture into space 10 to 20 times before being retired. And the rather lengthy, nearly year-long span of time before this particular Falcon 9 was reused for a mission will eventually be whittled down to three to four months according to Musk.
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said in March 2016 that it could lower launch costs by 30 percent compared to using a “fresh” Falcon 9 booster. Shotwell went on to describe the scene when she visited the Falcon 9 that SpaceX successfully recovered in December 2015.
“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,” said Shotwell. “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.”
Reusing the booster stage of its rockets will be instrumental in Musk’s aim to send astronauts to the ISS safely and economically, with an end-goal of putting humans on Mars.
(Top Image Courtesy Heisenberg Media/flickr)