SpaceX is a leader in aerospace innovation, rocket reusability is one of its top priorities. The company has designed and manufactured some of the world’s most advanced rockets, capable of launching payload to orbit and returning from space to be reused. Most aerospace companies use a rocket once and discard it; SpaceX engineers developed a rocket recovery system to reuse the first-stage booster of the two-stage Falcon 9. The 229-feet-tall launch vehicle is the most flown operational rocket in the United States, it has flown 94 times.
Falcon 9’s nine Merlin 1D engines are powered by a combination of rocket-grade kerosene, known as RP-1, and liquid oxygen, LOX. It is capable of producing over 1.7 million pounds of thrust as it lifts off through Earth’s atmosphere. In the vacuum of space, it produces over 1.8 million pounds of thrust. The rocket’s second stage, which is the top section that propels the payload in space, is powered by a single Merlin engine, it can carry 25 tons of payload to low Earth orbit.
A Falcon 9’s first-stage features the capability to conduct vertical landings on autonomous drone ships at sea and on land. Engineers truly introduced a great innovation to the aerospace industry. To date, the company has successfully returned 61 orbital-class rocket boosters from space soon after deploying payload. Overall, SpaceX has reused previously-flown Falcon 9 first-stage boosters 43 times --a first in the history of rocketry.
Falcon 9 is capable of being 85% reusable. Engineers aim to eventually accomplish developing a next-generation rocket that can be as reusable as airplanes. For now, SpaceX’s reusability goal is to refly a booster 10 times, they are halfway towards reaching that milestone. A couple of Falcon 9 first-stage boosters have already re-flown 6 times. Today, SpaceX founder Chief Engineer Elon Musk said the company is "aiming for 10+ flights of booster & fairing by end of next year."
Ahem, yes, it was the 3rd flight of this booster & 3rd flight for active half of fairing. Aiming for 10+ flights of booster & fairing by end of next year.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 6, 2020
When asked if there was a significant difference when refurbishing the boosters for reuse as they reach the sixth reflight, Musk said --"We’re not seeing notable differences yet. I think the boosters could probably do 100+ reflights. Some of the (small) composite helium tanks would need to be replaced. Maybe turbopump hot sections," he wrote via Twitter.
We’re not seeing notable differences yet. I think the boosters could probably do 100+ reflights. Some of the (small) composite helium tanks would need to be replaced. Maybe turbopump hot sections.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 6, 2020
Previously flown Falcon 9 boosters are mostly used for internal Starlink missions. SpaceX customers can book to ride atop a previously-flown booster for a cheaper price. Booking a flight aboard a new Falcon 9 rocket costs approximately $62 million. The first-stage booster that SpaceX recovers makes up about 60% of the total cost of the rocket, around $30 million. Recovering a Falcon 9’s first-stage significantly reduces the cost of spaceflight.
Due to SpaceX's high accuracy rate when reusing and landing rockets, the U.S. Space Force will save tax payers money and opt to launch a couple of its third new-generation series Global Positioning System (GPS-III) satellites atop previously-flown Falcon 9 rockets next year. It will be the first time SpaceX conducts United States national security missions with a previously-flown launch vehicle. During a press conference on June 26, the Space Force’s Chief of Space Missile Center's Launch Enterprise Falcon Division, Walter Lauderdale, shared SpaceX took off “several million dollars” off the total price of the launch as a tradeoff to recover (land) the Falcon 9 rocket boosters. The original SpaceX launch contract was valued at around $96.5 million. “I am proud of our partnership with SpaceX that allowed us to successfully negotiate contract modifications for the upcoming GPS III missions that will save taxpayers $52.7 million while maintaining our unprecedented record of success,” he stated.
About the Author
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.