Reusable Falcon 9 rocket is a triumph for SpaceX's Elon Musk

To outside observers, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launch Thursday evening might not have looked particularly remarkable — no streaking contrail through the sky, the rumble muffled a bit by gusty winds.

But after the first stage completed its work and descended to a landing on an ocean platform, Elon Musk said he was rendered nearly speechless.

“This is a huge day,” the SpaceX founder and CEO said after the launch from Kennedy Space Center, joined by his five boys at a celebratory press conference. “My mind is blown, frankly.”

The launch of the SES-10 commercial satellite marked the first time SpaceX had re-flown a Falcon booster, culminating 15 years of work to prove that large, orbital rockets can be reused.

It was a triumphant moment for Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur who since starting SpaceX in 2002 has faced doubters of his unconventional approach to spaceflight and grandiose ambitions to establish a city on Mars.

Only seven months earlier, a Falcon rocket had exploded spectacularly on its Cape Canaveral launch pad, SpaceX’s second catastrophic failure in just over a year. A failed flight by a used booster would have been a major setback.

Instead, by Thursday night, Musk’s prophesies about a dramatic reduction in the cost of spaceflight and the potential for getting to Mars seemed more plausible than ever.

“It means that humanity can become a spacefaring civilization and be out there among stars,” he said. “This is what we want for the future.”

From the beginning, Musk has preached that reusable rockets are key to that future.

It remains to be seen how often Falcon rockets can fly, how easily they can be turned around from one flight to another and how much money that saves.

“It’s potentially a big cost-saver and it will make a difference, provided you can re-fly multiple times,” said Ray Lugo, director of the Florida Space Institute at the University of Central Florida, who once oversaw launches of NASA science missions on what were then exclusively “expendable” rockets. “If this works, over the long term it will be difficult for anyone that throws boosters away to compete.”

Analyses of reusability have considered both the technical challenges, which SpaceX solved Thursday, and financial questions about how much it costs and how frequently rockets must fly to make the investment worthwhile.

“In the end, reusability is going to be governed by whether or not it passes a business case test,” Mike Griffin, a former NASA administrator, said last fall during an industry conference panel discussion on the subject.

Space shuttles didn’t pass that test, requiring months of refurbishment between flights and never coming close to meeting promises for frequent, low-cost flights. Some concluded reusability wasn't worth the effort and expense.

SpaceX’s business case is that boosters and their engines represent about two-thirds of the cost of any launch, which the company markets for $62 million for a typical commercial satellite.

During Thursday’s mission, SpaceX for the first time recovered the rocket’s nose cone, which parachuted to the ocean — another potential $6 million savings, if it can be reused. The rocket's upper stage would be the only major piece left that is not recovered.

"You’re really looking at maybe three-quarters of the rocket cost dropping by an order of magnitude, and maybe more," he said.

It will take time for SpaceX to recoup its billion-dollar investment in landing and recovery systems and offer steeper discounts for “flight proven” rockets, but Musk said he expects the economics "to start becoming sensible next year.”

A Falcon rocket should be able to fly 10 times with no refurbishment, he said, and up to 100 times with moderate refurbishment.

His next trick: re-flying Falcons within a day, after only minimal inspections and refueling.

“Now our aspiration will be zero hardware changes, re-flight in 24 hours, the only thing that changes is we reload propellant,” he said. “Just like an aircraft, really.”

That could be worrisome for competitors like United Launch Alliance or Arianespace that do not reuse rockets, at least not yet. Musk said it's like a plane that can only fly once competing against one that can fly over and over.

“That’s not a very competitive position to be in,” he said. “You really want to have the aircraft that can be flown lots of times.”

Martin Halliwell, chief technology officer of Luxembourg-based SES, whose satellite reached orbit Thursday, said SpaceX had the launch industry “shaking in its boots” several years ago when it showed Falcon rockets could launch communications satellites to high orbits.

Of the three missions SES has flown on Falcon 9 rockets to date, Halliwell said the ride on a recycled booster was the smoothest yet.

“I think we made a little bit of history today, actually, and just opened a door into a whole new era of spaceflight,” he said.

Longer-term, Musk thinks reusability can lead to a 100-fold reduction in the cost to put goods in space.

“It means for the same budget, we can do 100 times more things,” he said. “Mind blowing, really.”

Costs may have to drop further to enable a self-sustaining city on Mars.

SpaceX is designing a giant rocket as part of a new “Interplanetary Transport System," applying lessons learned from Falcon rockets to ensure that it can be flown even more often.

“This is I think a very helpful proof point that it’s possible,” he said Thursday. “And I hope people start to think of it as a real goal to which we should aspire, to establish a civilization on Mars.”

Before that proof was in, Musk felt oddly calm before Thursday’s high-stakes re-launch, nervous that he wasn’t more nervous.

His calm was rewarded with a flawless flight and a historic first that he ranks among his greatest professional accomplishments.

“Definitely one of the best things ever,” said Musk. “That’s 15 years of a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center Thursday, March 30, 2017. The rocket, carrying a commercial communications satellite marks the first time SpaceX has reused one of its Falcon 9 boosters. (Photo: Craig Bailey, FLORIDA TODAY-USA TODAY NETWORK)

How SpaceX's Historic Rocket Re-Flight Boosts Elon Musk's Mars Plan

Elon Musk's Mars-colonization vision just got a step closer to reality.

On Thursday (March 30), Musk's company SpaceX successfully launched the SES-10 communications satellite to Earth orbit using a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket whose first stage already had one spaceflight under its belt.

The mission demonstrated the type of technology that could help make Mars settlement economically feasible, Musk said. ['Huge Revolution in Spaceflight': Elon Musk Comments on 1st Reused SpaceX Rocket (Video)]

"There needs to be at least a 100-fold, if not perhaps a 1,000-fold, reduction in the cost per ton to Mars — actually, maybe 10,000-fold," he said Thursday during a postlaunch teleconference with reporters.

"And reusability is absolutely fundamental to that goal," Musk added. "So this, I think, is a very helpful proof point that it's possible, and I hope people start to think of it as a real goal to which we should aspire — to establish a civilization on Mars."

Journey to Mars

Musk has long said that he founded SpaceX back in 2002 chiefly to help make humanity a multiplanet species.

In September, the billionaire entrepreneur unveiled the broad outlines of SpaceX's plans to do just that. The company aims to establish a million-person city on Mars using a rocket-spaceship combo called the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), which is in the early development stage.

Both the ITS rocket and the spaceship will be reusable. Indeed, the booster will be designed to launch at least 1,000 times, Musk said Thursday.

That level of reusability may sound like an outrageous leap from the status quo of one-and-done rocket launches, but SpaceX's work with the Falcon 9 going forward could help to the bridge the gap.

"The design intent is that the rocket can be re-flown with zero hardware changes — in other words, the only thing that changes is, you reload propellant — 10 times," Musk said Thursday, referring to the Falcon 9 first stage.

"And then, with moderate refurbishment that doesn’t have a significant effect on the cost, it can be reflown at least 100 times," Musk added. "Actually, really, we could make 1,000, but it probably isn't quite there. I'm being careful."

Used rockets taking flight

Musk said he expects SpaceX to launch about six "proven" Falcon 9 first stages on orbital missions this year, and perhaps double that number in 2018. But those are just guesses; the decision to go with new or used on each mission resides with SpaceX's customers, Musk said.

The customers who choose a used booster going forward won't pay the full $62 million Falcon 9 launch price, but it's unclear exactly what the discount will be. (Luxembourg-based company SES, which will operate the SES-10 satellite, received an undisclosed discount for Thursday's flight.)

"We're trying to figure that out," Musk said. The reflight discount will be "meaningful," he added, but it "won't be as much as the cost savings, because we need to repay the massive development costs."

Those development costs probably exceed $1 billion, so it will take the company a while to pay them off, Musk said. However, the potential savings from reuse are sizeable; the first stage accounts for up to 70 percent of the cost of each Falcon 9 launch, Musk said. And it costs just $200,000 to $300,000 to refuel a first stage for further action, SpaceX representatives have said. (The company also plans to reuse Falcon 9 fairings — the nose cones that protect payloads during liftoff — down the road, and may attempt to recover and re-fly Falcon 9 upper stages at some point as well, Musk said Thursday. The company successfully recovered the $6 million fairing during the SES-10 launch.)

Thursday's launch therefore "opened the door into a whole new era of spaceflight," said SES chief technology officer Martin Halliwell.

If other launch providers don't match SpaceX's re-flight achievements, they risk getting priced out of the market, Halliwell suggested during Thursday's teleconference.

"When we did the SES-8 mission — the first commercial GTO mission that we did with SpaceX — I made the comment that the industry will be shaking in its boots," Halliwell said, referring to a 2013 launch to geosynchronous transfer orbit. "Oh, I think it's shaking now. I really do. But it's OK. It's for the better."

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