Last week, SpaceX (News - Alert) and Blue Origin marked new milestones in building reusable launch vehicles. SpaceX successfully landed a Falcon 9 first stage on a drone ship, while Blue Origin made its third launch and landing with the New Shepard suborbital vehicle. Each company continues to build experience unmatched and so far unchallenged by traditional launch providers, with the prospect to lower costs and increase launch rates in the near future.
SpaceX's CRS-8 space station supply mission for NASA lifted off on Friday, April 8, at 4:43 p.m. Eastern time from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Its primary goal to put the Dragon cargo capsule into orbit for a rendezvous with the International Space Station was met around 10 minutes after liftoff.
The first stage of the CRS-8 flight returned to land onboard the drone ship "Of Course I Still Love You" around 8 minutes and 35 seconds after lift performing three rocket burns before touching down slightly off-center on the moving drone platform. The landing was all the more dramatic due to high windows on the final landing approach and ocean waves pitching the platform up and down a couple of degrees.
It was the first successful landing of a Falcon 9 first stage on a drone ship after four previous attempts and the second successful landing of a Falcon 9 first stage, the first touching down on a landing site at Cape Canaveral.
Drone ship landings are expected to make up half to a third of Falcon 9 first stage returns, according to the company. Launching communications satellites into geosynchronous orbit requires more fuel and speed, making a landing at sea easier and more viable than having to return to the Cape with nearly empty tanks.
But landing at sea is a much trickier business. The drone ship is a much smaller target and is moving around in three dimensions, making the task of putting a first stage on it much more challenging, more akin to landing a helicopter on a ship.
Once back in port, the recovered first stage will be trucked back to one of SpaceX's launch pads at Cape Canaveral and undergo a series of 10 hot fire tests on the ground to qualify it for reuse in another launch. It would be the first piece of pre-flown SpaceX hardware to be qualified for another launch; the first returned stage is set to go on display outside the company's headquarters later this year.
Reuse of the first stage is expected to drop launch costs considerably. A fully new Falcon 9 launch lists at $61.2 million, with flights reusing a first stage expected to cost around $40 million. Satellite company SES (News - Alert) has said it would be willing to fly on the first reusable flight, assuming it could get a decent discount.
But the company still has to clock in more experience in recovering and reusing boosters. Musk tweeted in January that he expects to have around a 70 percent landing success rate in 2016 and hopefully improve to 90 percent in 2017. Ultimately he'd like to get to the point where it is routine to bring back the first stage on the ship, hose off the outside, clean it up, refuel, and get ready to go again.
Launch pricing might get knocked down a couple million dollars more if SpaceX can also recover and reuse the outside payload fairing that protects satellites on the trip to space. Currently, the clamshell fairing falls away and drops into the ocean, but SpaceX is looking at recovering it.
SpaceX hasn't discussed how many flights they expect to get out of a reused Falcon 9 first stage. Is it two, five, ten? One hundred? More flights per first stage mean more profit, but each reuse launch represents some risk until there's a solid engineering flight history established. The Falcon 9 first stage is designed to complete its mission to boost a payload into space even if it loses an engine and has demonstrated the ability to do so in the past.
Finally, if one first stage flying back for reuse isn't exciting enough, what about three? The Falcon Heavy will use three Falcon 9 core first stages to put up to 117,000 pounds into low Earth orbit. SpaceX expects to fly back all three first stages for landing and reflight. List price for Falcon Heavy is $90 million. The company hasn't discussed what a reusable Falcon Heavy launch might cost, but one can imagine what a heavy rocket with lower launch costs might do to existing providers and the space industry as a whole.