Serial-disrupter Elon Musk is leading SpaceX past another major milestone in its long-term plan to build a city on Mars—and in the process, make access to space dramatically cheaper.
Since the billionaire founded the spaceflight company in 2002, his mission has been to master rocket reusability to reduce costs. Thus far, SpaceX has crossed several major milestones in pursuit of that goal. They’ve successfully brought home a total of 8 boosters to date on both land and at sea, but have yet to reuse any of the previously launched and recovered—”flight proven”—rockets.
That’s about to change. For their very next launch, SpaceX will attempt to refly one of its recovered rockets and cross a major hurdle in reusability that’s necessary to make a human mission to Mars financially and architecturally feasible.
For 60 years, rockets owned by both governments and private companies around the world have been disposed after a single use (at a cost of tens of millions of dollars). When a flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, it will mark the first relaunch of a refurbished orbital rocket in aerospace history.
Due to scheduling conflicts, the exact date for the historic launch is unknown, but SpaceX is targeting next week, around March 29th. SpaceX launches are almost always pushed a few days due to weather or technical issues.
There’s an added twist in SpaceX’s history-making relaunch: This is no test flight. Despite the unique and factory-refurbished nature of the rocket itself, SpaceX will be flying a relatively routine mission for a paying customer. They will be delivering the SES-10 satellite to orbit on the flight-proven Falcon 9 booster for the Luxembourg-based communications company, SES.
“This will be a watershed moment for space exploration. Just think how quickly we’ve gone from throwing away boosters to now landing them and re-flying them,” said Phil Larson, a former space advisor to President Obama who also worked at SpaceX.“Lowering the cost of launching out of Earth’s gravity well is the game changer needed to expand our capabilities in space.”
The booster being reused for the SES-10 mission was recovered last April on an autonomous drone ship parked miles off the coast of Florida, the Of Course I Still Love You. The return followed a delivery of SpaceX’s cargo-filled Dragon to orbit to begin its journey to the space station.
That recovery was the very first time a rocket booster of any kind landed on a platform at sea. SpaceX has repeated the feat three more times, on the same ship parked miles off Florida’s coast and once on the company’s west coast droneship, the Just Read the Instructions.
A gleeful Elon Musk made a rare appearance at Kennedy Space Center following the first drone ship landing and spoke to the media. He explained that “the cost to refuel our rocket is only about 200 to 300 thousand dollars. The rocket itself is 60 million. That’s like an aircraft, they are really expensive to construct and buy but not to refuel. It’s really quite fundamental.”
After SpaceX landed that first booster at sea, it was transported to their rocket development facility in Mcgregor, Texas where it was revamped and test-fired before being shipped back to Cape Canaveral. SpaceX will conduct another hold-down fire of that rocket’s engines a few days before the reflight next week.
With the upcoming second launch will also come a second landing. After the Falcon 9 makes its payload delivery, the booster will once again perform a boostback maneuver and come soaring back through Florida’s skies for its second landing on the Of Course I Still Love You.
SpaceX has been conducting booster landing tests since September 2013. They didn’t fully recover one until December 21st 2015 when they navigated the Falcon 9 back to Cape Canaveral following a satellite delivery and touched down on ground at Landing Zone 1. It was the first time in history an orbital rocket was recovered after a mission.
“I tell my team, imagine if there’s a pallet of cash that was plummeting through the atmosphere and it was gonna burn up and smash into tiny pieces. Would you try to save it?” said Elon Musk at Recode’s Code Conference last year. “Probably yes. That sounds like a good idea. We want to get it back so that way we don’t have to make another one.”
The first reflight of a recovered rocket represents a major hurdle crossed for SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk, whose vision for making humans multi-planetary can only be achieved through reusability. As he explained during SpaceX’s Mars presentation in Guadalajara, the architecture requires the mastering of reusable rocket technology. “Full reusability is really the super hard one,” said Musk. “It’s very difficult to achieve reusability for even an orbital system and that challenge becomes even substantially greater for a system that has to go to another planet.”
To get to other planets, SpaceX has conceptualized a massive 400 foot tall Interplanetary Transport System consisting of a reusable booster rocket and a passenger ship. The first destination is Mars, where Musk envisions a permanent human settlement. But the entire plan rests on the spaceship’s ability to be reused multiple times.
Full reusability will enable a very tedious fueling procedure that will take place before the first Mars settlers begin their journey. The Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) will launch and deliver the crew spacecraft to a parking orbit and have the rocket booster fly back and relaunch multiple times from the launch pad carrying a fuel tanker. This tanker will rendezvous with the crew ship in orbit and top off its fuel. The giant passenger ship will then depart and coast from Earth to Mars at over 62,000 mph for a half-year journey. That will require plenty of fuel.
In fact, the very first mission will see the ITS loaded with equipment and material to build a fuel processing facility on Mars. The following mission will launch with a small skeleton crew to begin building the first semblance of a city. This is another reason why reusability is so integral to SpaceX’s future: It will reduce the cost-per-seat for every passenger heading to Mars and enable return trips as well as further missions throughout the solar system.
“Launch is critical. It’s for the customer—the primary mission. Landing is really to increase our knowledge base and bolster our technology for ultimately, taking people to other planets,” explained SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell during a press conference at Kennedy Space Center. You’ve got to be able to land and refly. Otherwise it’s a one-way trip which we’re not interested in of course.”
Reusability along with a growing manifest of customer launches will help SpaceX save the cash needed to establish a permanent presence on Mars and they are already spending money on the mission. SpaceX has built and test-fired the Raptor engine, which will power the Interplanetary Transport System. They also conducted a pressure test of the massive spaceship’s carbon-fiber fuel tank. Both tests were successful. The company’s first human missions to Mars are expected to launch in the early to mid-2030s.
Until then, Elon Musk hopes that other companies will make advancements in reusable rocket technology in the effort to make space travel more routine and sustainable. “I’m hopeful that the other launch providers will head in the direction of reusability,” he said. “I think it’s quite fundamental. It’s just as fundamental in rocketry as it is in other forms of transport. Such as cars or planes or bicycles or anything.”