SpaceX Now Has “All the Pieces” For Truly Reusable Rockets

A successful flight test of the Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket on Sunday demonstrated booster-return capability on a flight to orbit. The technology could enable reusable orbital launch vehicles as early as February, 2014

Spacex Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast carrying the Canadian CASSIOPE scientific satellite, as well as a trio of small, university-built satellites. But the big success for Elon Musk’s space venture came when some of the rockets succeeded in refiring their engines, a major step toward a reusable Falcon 9.

Ground controllers at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., restarted the engines on both rocket stages after dropping off the satellites. The second stage booster failed to ignite as planned, but three of the nine engines on the first stage fired up again as intended. The restart allowed the booster to reenter the atmosphere at supersonic speed without damage—first stage booster rockets more typically disintegrate on reentry.

“We now believe we have all the pieces of the puzzle,” Musk said on the press call. “If you take the Grasshopper tests, where we were able to do a precision takeoff and landing of a Falcon 9 first stage, and you combine it with the results from this flight—where we were able to successfully transition from vacuum through hypersonic, through supersonic, through transonic, and light the engines all the way and control the stage all the way through—we have all the pieces necessary to achieve a full recovery of the boost stage.”

The first stage booster on Sunday’s flight survived for a second relight, this time just of the center engine, as planned. At that point, however, the booster was spinning so fast it pushed propellant away from the fuel lines, shutting the engine down prematurely. Consequently, the booster came down harder than expected and broke up on impact with the Pacific Ocean. Musk said that had the booster on Sunday’s flight had the landing legs of the Grasshopper used in flight tests at McGregor, the legs would have stabilized the rocket enough to keep the engine running longer, potentially enabling the booster to remain intact.

Reusable Rocket Vision

The Falcon 9.1.1 will be able to launch 25.8% more payload to low earth orbit than the Falcon 9. The Falcon 9.1.1 will reduce the price to LEO to $4109 per kilogram ($1870 per pound).

The Spacex Falcon Heavy will also use the Merlin 1D and will bring costs down below $1000 per pound to LEO.

Full success with reusable rockets would bring costs down by 100 times.

Saving the fuel to perform a controlled landing on water requires sacrificing 15 percent of the potential payload; returning to land will take a 30 percent cut. Musk said the boost stage is about three-quarters of the total cost of the rocket, so being able to reuse it would provide a substantial net gain.

A launch with a reusable first stage could have a 25% reduction in cost.

A reusable first stage Falcon 9.1.1 could reduce the price to LEO to $1500 per pound and reusable first stage Falcon Heavy v1.1 could have a cost of $800 per pound to LEO.

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