After flying to the edge of space, a spent SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket booster successfully returned to Earth, deployed its landing legs, and hovered for a moment. The ability, known as a soft landing, could allow the company to dramatically reduce the cost of spaceflight and one day land rockets on Mars.
Because it came down at a spot in the Atlantic Ocean, SpaceX’s rocket had nothing solid to land on. It crashed into the ocean and was lost to large waves from a storm before the company could get a boat out to recover it. But in the next few months, SpaceX hopes to reproduce the achievement.
“We expect to get more and more precise with each landing. If all goes well, I am optimistic that we can land a stage back at Cape Canaveral at the end of the year,” said entrepreneur and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, during a press conference Apr. 25 in Washington D.C.
By recovering the spent stages, SpaceX predicts it could reduce the cost of their launches, currently around $60 million per flight, by as much as 70 percent. Ultimately they target reducing costs by about ten times.
SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell talks at the event last summer and discussed the price points for a reusable Falcon 9. The comments begin at the 13:17 mark.
“If we get this right, and we’re trying very hard to get this right, we’re looking at launches to be in the 5 to 7 million dollar range, which would really change things dramatically,” Shotwell said.
Spacex is developing a reusable launch vehicle where really the only cost associated with that vehicle – the non recurring, excuse me the initial investment in the stages themselves but the cost of fuel and the mission operations. So if we get this right – and were trying really hard to get this right – “we’re looking at launches to be in the five to seven million dollar range , which would really change things dramatically.
From a commercial perspective Falcon Heavy, it’s an over-sized vehicle. Its got more capacity than folks in this room need – unless we wanna put two of the biggest satellites on this vehicle and fly them both to GTO. That would yield a pretty respectable price for folks. But what we are really trying to do is, push the bounds of technology with respect to size of launch vehicles, and see if we can put some really interesting things into the solar system and hopefully land some things on Mars as well. This will be the largest vehicle flying since the Saturn moon rockets. We’re sandbagging the GTO-numbers, actually analytically it looks like were gonna take 19 tons to GTO. But we’re being conservative, with the 12 metric tons. And this will be – hopefully – a vehicle that takes many things to Mars.
“Will space travel be as ubiquitous as air travel? [SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell] does not think it will be as ubiquitous. She does not believe the costs will ever get quite as affordable as air travel. But it will increase thousands of thousandfold. Right now the cost to get to the ISS – to LEO – is 67 million dollars per seat and we’d like to see space travel, we’d like to see folks going be able to get to Mars for a couple of hundred thousands, maybe half a million Dollars.
Spacex rockets looks very much like any other liquid fuel rocket that’s flying. The innovations that Spacex have, there are thousands of innovations on the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, that allows Spacex to sell it for a pretty discounted price, compared to their competitors internationally and a dramatically discounted price compared to our domestic competitors in United launch Alliance. Spacex looked at this vehicle and this company as a company that needs to be profitable, that needs to sustain itself and they’ve looked at the vehicle, both the design and importantly the operations.
And if you think about all the things that go into launching a successful mission and you work on every bit of that – you don’t just work on a valve here or you work on a piece of structure there – but you think about the facilities that are involved, so it’s those kind of innovation. A couple of quick examples: So the vehicles in the United States – at least – use a mobile service tower, which is a high rise office building where you build the launch vehicle, that’s right on top of the launch deck. And by the way it has to roll back for launch. So there is nothing inexpensive about this mobile service tower, its a high rise office building on wheels that needs to get out of the way, before you fly by. Spacex use a horizontal approach – which the Russians use as well, by the way. So were not particularly innovative there – but its pulling all of those kinds of pieces together, that allow Spacex to fly Falcon 9 for a nice price reduction in the industry. But the real key to changing things dramatically is this concept of re-usability. That’s when you go from flying a 60 million dollar mission to flying a 5, 6 or 7 million dollar mission. That’s really where the change is. But you have to have the business to start.
Here are the estimated costs for one use and partially reusable and more reusable Spacex rockets
This is based on past statements to roughly work out projected costs.
One use Falcon 9 rocket launch cost $1,862/lb
One use Falcon Heavy launch cost $1000/lb
The above costs are from Wikipedia and the Spacex website.
First stage reusable Falcon 9 launch cost $1200/lb
First stage reusable Falcon Heavy launch cost $600/lb
The cost of fuel and the Spacex rockets has been repeated a few times.
Musk reiterated the origin of the SpaceX production model, saying fuel is only 0.3 percent of the total cost of a rocket, with construction materials accounting for no more than 2 percent of the total cost, which for the Falcon 9 is about $60 million.
Musk said that a rocket’s first stage accounts for three-quarters of its total price tag, so a vehicle with a reusable first stage can be produced at far less cost — assuming the hardware is fully and rapidly reusable.
A reusable rocket stage would be able to launch about 80% of the cargo of a one use rocket. The weight of fuel is needed to fly the stage back and the extra weight of landing legs and other modifications for reuse have to be carried.
Two launches with second reusing the first stage.
Capital cost – 1.25 times the cost of one full rocket.
0.6% for fuel
Launch cargo 1.6 times the cargo of one rocket.
78% of the cost of a single use rocket
Three launches with reuse of the first stage twice.
Capital cost – 1.5 times the cost of one rocket
0.9% for fuel
Launch cargo 2.4 times the cargo of one rocket
62.5% of the cost of a single use rocket
50% of the cost with five launches and four reuses of the first stage [$930 per pound for the 9 v1.1 and $500 per pound for the heavy]
Reusable first stage falcon heavy [with about twenty reuses] can get down to about $350/lb [one third the one use price].
Reusable (about fifteen times) Falcon 9 rocket launch cost all stages reusable $100/lb [all three stages of a falcon heavy, should get to about ten times cheaper]
Although first reuse of a first stage could happen in 2015 there are still some years of work to get regular commercial reusable rocket flights
The reusable rocket first stage needs to keep going forward. It would take too much fuel to stop or turn a stage going 6 times the speed of sound and reverse direction. So the reusable first stage needs to fly from say Florida to Texas, then it gets shipped back to Florida for the next launch or Spacex flies back and forth between Florida and Texas. Spacex is working to get a Texas spaceport setup.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
Known for identifying cutting edge technologies, he is currently a Co-Founder of a startup and fundraiser for high potential early-stage companies. He is the Head of Research for Allocations for deep technology investments and an Angel Investor at Space Angels.
A frequent speaker at corporations, he has been a TEDx speaker, a Singularity University speaker and guest at numerous interviews for radio and podcasts. He is open to public speaking and advising engagements.