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Falcon 9 SES-10 launch
A SpaceX Falcon 9, using a first stage previously flown on a mission last year, launches the SES-10 satellite from the Kennedy Space Center March 30. (credit: SpaceX)

Now to make it pay off

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Perhaps the most surprising thing was that people were surprised SpaceX could pull it off.

On Thursday evening, a Falcon 9 lifted off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A carrying the SES-10 communications satellite. All went according to plan for the mission: the rocket’s second stage placed the satellite into a geostationary transfer orbit while the first stage executed a successful landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic.

“I felt calmer than I should,” Musk said. “I was nervous I wasn’t nervous enough.”

The difference was that first stage had flown before. In April of 2016, the first stage launched a Dragon cargo spacecraft, then landed on the same ship in the Atlantic. After years of talk and hype, SpaceX had demonstrated that it could not only land a first stage, but also refurbish and successfully reuse it. It was, many argued, the dawn of a new age of commercial spaceflight: the era of reusability had finally arrived.

That assessment, though, was overly simplistic for a few reasons. One is that it should not have been surprising that the Falcon 9 performed as planned. It’s unlikely SES would have allowed their satellite to fly on the vehicle, even at a significant price discount, if it wasn’t confident that the vehicle would perform according to plan.

“You’ve got to decouple the emotion from the engineering,” said Martin Halliwell, chief technology officer of SES, in a post-launch news conference at KSC. Asked about that later, he said he was referring to people who argued that SES was taking an “inordinate risk” by flying on this mission. “We worked very, very closely together with SpaceX.” He said SES had access to engineering details that gave it confidence that the mission would be successful, regardless of the booster’s pedigree.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said that, during the launch, he was “oddly calm” throughout the flight, despite all the attention focused on it. “I felt calmer than I should,” he said. “I was nervous I wasn’t nervous enough.”

The second issue with that assessment is that reusability is new. As more than a few veterans of the space shuttle program noted, the shuttle was, like the Falcon 9, partially reusable. In the suborbital realm, several vehicles flew to at least 100 kilometers and repeated the feat, including the X-15, SpaceShipOne, and, most recently, Blue Origin’s New Shepard.

Indeed, the same week as SpaceX launched a reused Falcon 9, Blue Origin received the prestigious Collier Trophy by the National Aeronautic Association for its achievements with New Shepard. That vehicle’s propulsion module, retired after five flights, is on display this week at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, just weeks after Blue Origin announced that its New Glenn orbital launch vehicle, slated for a first flight around the end of the decade, will also feature a reusable first stage.

“We do have to figure out some way to pay off the development costs of reusability,” he said. “The price savings can’t be as much as the cost savings because we need to repay the massive development costs.”

Then there is the question of economics. The promise of reusability has been high flight rates and low launch prices that revolutionize space access. The practice of reusability, by contrast, as demonstrated by the shuttle was something else entirely. Can SpaceX do better?

Musk, at the post-launch press conference, played down an immediate revolution in spaceflight simply because SpaceX needed to recoup its significant investment in reusability. “No one was paying us for reusability, so it had to be on our own dime. It’s probably at least a billion dollars that we’ve spent developing it. It’ll take us a while to pay that off,” he said.

“We need to get really efficient with the reuse of the booster and with the fairing,” he said. “I would expect the economics to start to become sensible next year.”

What that suggests, then, is that even if reusability results in a significant reduction in costs, that won’t be immediately reflected in a similar reduction in prices that SpaceX’s customers pay for launches. Yet, there will be an expectation among customers that a reused rocket should cost less.

“We’re trying to figure that out,” Musk said when asked about how much of a discount SpaceX would offer for launches with reused boosters. “It will be a meaningful discount” that, he said, would make the Falcon 9 less expensive “than any other rocket in the world” (presumably in that class of payload performance.)

“We do have to figure out some way to pay off the development costs of reusability,” he emphasized. “The price savings can’t be as much as the cost savings because we need to repay the massive development costs.”

And there is still more development work to do. In addition to recovering the first stage, SpaceX is now experimenting with recovering the payload fairing, the nose cone jettisoned several minutes after launch. Musk said that, on the SES-10 launch, SpaceX attempted to guide the fairing halves—the fairing splits into two when jettisoned—to a splashdown in the ocean using thrusters to maintain its orientation during reentry and a steerable parachute. “It’s like its own little spacecraft,” he said.

At least one of the two fairing halves was spotted floating in the ocean, although the company hadn’t released additional details about the recovery and potential reuse of the fairing.

“I’m highly confident that it’s possible to achieve a hundred-fold reduction in the cost of space transport, and maybe more. Maybe better than that,” Musk said.

The attempted recovery, he said, is significant because the payload fairing is surprisingly expensive: about $6 million, or nearly 10 percent the list price of a Falcon 9 launch. “At one point we were debating if we should try to recover it or not,” Musk said. “Imagine if you had $6 million in cash in a pallet flying through the air, and it was going to smash into the ocean. Would you try to recover that? Yes, yes you would.”

He also raised the prospect of trying to recover the upper stage, which SpaceX once considered recovering but later ruled out because of the much greater difficulty involved with landing it versus a first stage, which does not travel as high or as fast. At the press conference, he seemed open to trying it. “It might be fun to try like a Hail Mary. What’s the worst that could happen? It blows up. It blows up anyway.”

A day later, Musk tweeted that he was considering such an upper stage recovery attempt on the first launch of the Falcon Heavy, which is now planned for no earlier than late summer. “Odds of success low, but maybe worth a shot,” he wrote.

He also wants to try rapid turnaround of landed boosters, another key element of reducing launch costs though increased flight rates. “Our aspiration will be zero hardware changes and reflight in 24 hours. The only thing that changes is that we reload propellant,” he said. “We might get there towards the end of this year, but if not this year I’m confident that we’ll get there next year.”

A 24-hour turnaround would require many more upgrades, most likely, than simply a reusable first stage that only needs to be gassed up. There will be logistical issues of getting the stage from the landing pad to the launch site, integrating it with a new upper stage and payload, and preparing the vehicle for a launch. Musk didn’t address those issues, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it took more than a year to achieve such a rapid turnaround.

Eventually, though, he said he believed that far greater cost reductions were possible. “What the significance of today is that it’s proving it’s possible to do that,” he said. “I’m highly confident that it’s possible to achieve a hundred-fold reduction in the cost of space transport, and maybe more. Maybe better than that.”

That hundred-fold cost savings, he suggested, might not be realized with the Falcon 9 itself, but rather with the booster he unveiled last September for his Interplanetary Transport System. (Musk said an update to that architecture should be released in about a month.) That booster, he said, is designed for full reusability and a one-hour turnaround time.

If SpaceX can achieve two orders of magnitude reductions in launch costs, Musk said that means it’s possible to do that much more in space. “Mind-blowing, really,” he said. Suffice it to say, if SpaceX does achieve those cost reductions, a lot of minds will be blown.