SpaceX took nearly a year to relaunch its first “flight-proven” Falcon 9 booster, but within a year or two, company founder Elon Musk expects to be able to launch the same rocket day after day.
He also foresees a time when all the major components of a Falcon 9 rocket can be flown again — not just the first-stage booster, but also the nose cone and perhaps even the rocket’s upper stage.
That could drive the cost of a launch to less than 1 percent of what it is today — for example, $600,000 rather than the current $62 million list price for a Falcon 9 rocket launch.
“The significance of today is proving that it’s possible to do that,” Musk said.
Musk discussed the implications of the first-ever reuse of an orbital-class rocket today during a news briefing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, just a couple of hours after SpaceX successfully put the SES-10 communications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit.
The Falcon 9’s first-stage booster not only worked perfectly, but also flew itself back to an autonomous drone ship for its second at-sea landing and recovery.
Several other previously flown … er, “flight-proven” … boosters are waiting in the wings, and Musk said six reflights could take place this year. Twice as many booster reflights could occur during 2018, he added.
More importantly, Musk expects the turnaround time to shrink significantly. In preparation for today’s reflight, the SpaceX team was “incredibly paranoid” about replacing components, Musk said. His goal is to refine the procedures, and add real-time sensors to the Falcon 9 hardware, to make it possible to refly the first-stage booster without any hardware refurbishment.
“We might get there toward the end of this year, but I think if not this year, I’m confident we’ll get there next year,” Musk said. That could allow for a 24-hour turnaround time, he said.
Incredibly proud of the SpaceX team for achieving this milestone in space! Next goal is reflight within 24 hours.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 30, 2017
During the briefing, Musk noted that the nose cone that covered the SES-10 satellite, also known as the payload fairing, had been equipped with a parachute-and-thruster system. The system was activated to practice bringing the costly component down for a soft splashdown.
“That actually successfully landed as well,” Musk told reporters. “That was the cherry on the cake.”
Musk said that if the fairing can be recovered for reuse — for example, by landing it onto a floating “bouncy castle” at sea — that could save an additional $6 million per launch.
That would leave the Falcon 9’s upper stage as the only part of the rocket that was not reusable,
“We didn’t originally intend for the Falcon 9 to have a reusable upper stage,” Musk said, “but it might be fun to try, like, a Hail Mary. What’s the worst that could happen? It blows up, but it blows up anyway.”
Many of the boosters may be repurposed for use as side cores on the much more powerful Falcon Heavy rocket, which Musk now expects to debut late this summer. He expects to get to the point that each Falcon 9 booster could be reused 10 times with no refurbishment, or 100 times with moderate refurbishment.
Musk said SpaceX might try bringing the Falcon Heavy’s upper stage back during a demonstration flight. “Odds of success low, but maybe worth a shot,” he said in a tweet.
As ambitious as all this sounds, even a fully reusable Falcon Heavy represents merely another step toward Musk’s grand ambition: creating an Interplanetary Transport System that’s capable of sending settlers to Mars and creating a second home for humanity.
“This is a really a critical part of the Mars plan, if you consider the goal on Mars not to be a single mission, but one where we establish a self-sustaining city on Mars,” Musk said.
In order to make Mars settlement affordable, “there needs to be at least a hundredfold, if not perhaps a thousandfold reduction in the cost per ton to Mars, actually maybe ten-thousandfold, and reusability is absolutely essential to that goal,” Musk said.
“I hope people start to think of this as a real goal to which we should aspire, to establish a civilization on Mars,” Musk said. “This is not just about humanity. It’s about all the life that we care about.”