Elon Musk brings new meaning to the word irrepressible.
In early March the SpaceX founder and CEO stunned the spaceflight community by announcing the first joy ride into space. In 2018 he plans to launch one of his rockets to transport not astronauts, but two wealthy private citizens around the moon. The pair have already put down a “significant deposit” for the 300,000 mile trip that will take a week. This will be the first private company to take civilians beyond lower Earth orbit.
When Musk dreamed up the idea for his commercial space exploration company 15 years ago his core principle was to recycle flight-proven rockets, a strategy that would dramatically reduce the cost of space travel and make it more available for commercial audiences.
When a two-stage, 23-story tall Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 6:27 p.m. on March 30 from Complex 39a at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Musk's dream turned into reality. Originally flown in April 2015, the booster rocket returned nine minutes later settling softly on the bulls-eye of the drone ship "Of Course I Still Love You" in the Atlantic 200 miles off the coast of Cape Canaveral.
Touchdown. In both senses of the word.
The Falcon 9 flight further bolstered Musk's mission to slash the cost of spaceflight through the use of reusable rockets and hardware. The 45-year old billionaire believes it can revolutionize travel in the solar system and take humans to and establish a city on Mars.
"An amazing day for the space industry," Musk said that night at a press conference. "My mind is blown.
"It means you can fly and re-fly an orbit-class booster, which is the most expensive part of the rocket. This is going to be ultimately a huge revolution in spaceflight. It’s been 15 years to get to this point. It’s taken us a long time. There were a lot of difficult steps along with way, but I am just incredibly proud of the SpaceX team for being able to achieve this incredible milestone in the history of space. Something many people said was impossible.”
The Falcon 9 flight marked the first re-launch of a refurbished orbital rocket in aerospace history. For 60 years, rockets owned by both governments and private companies around the world have been dumped in the ocean after a single use (at a cost of at least $60 million). Musk often draws the analogy of how much airfare would be if you take a flight to Europe, and the plane is thrown away after the flight.
SpaceX has now successfully returned home nine booster rockets, two on land at Cape Canaveral and seven at sea on drone ships.
“This is a Wright Brothers moment for space,” said Phil Larson, a former space advisor to President Obama who also worked at SpaceX.
“It’s as important as the first plane taking off and landing and taking off again. Just think how quickly we’ve gone from throwing away boosters to now landing them and re-flying."
Perched on top of the Falcon 9 rocket, which sported a new upper stage and payload fairing, was the 11,645 pound SES-10 communications satellite. It will provide TV, internet and other services to customers in Latin America. Worth $200 million and built by France-based Airbus Defence and Space, the SES-10 separated from the second stage about 32 minutes after liftoff, completing the commercial purpose of the mission. Later it was confirmed the satellite was operating as planned after separation.
SES was asked last August if they would be interested in moving to a pre-flown booster. They were the first commercial satellite provider to contract SpaceX for a launch in 2013.
"The fact that it's flown once, that's just fine. Let's do it again," said Martin Halliwell, chief technology officer of Luxembourg-based SES.
"I think the whole industry is looking today. It opens a new era of reusability and capability for launch vehicles and for the aerospace industry in general. My belief is within 24 months SpaceX will offer a service to orbit, and it will be irrelevant if it's new or pre-flown.”
Halliwell said the ride on the recycled booster was the smoothest one yet for his company. They have three more launches with SpaceX this year and is considering flying two of them on flight-proven Falcon 9 rockets. Including SES-10, SpaceX has completed four launches this year and has 20 or so more launches scheduled to perform by year’s end.
During a post-launch teleconference with reporters, Musk revealed that the Falcon 9's payload fairing — the protective nose cone that shielded SES-10 on its way to space — came back for a soft splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, thanks to onboard thrusters and a steerable parachute. It cost about $6 million to build the 16.5-foot-wide fairing.
"That was definitely the cherry on the cake," Musk said with a laugh.
The Falcon 9 first stage booster's initial launch in April 2015 delivered the cargo-filled Dragon space capsule to orbit to begin its journey to the International Space Station. The booster flew in excess of 4,000 mph and once separated from the cargo ship performed a loop and dropped more than 87 miles to land on the drone ship.
SpaceX spent four months evaluating, testing and refurbishing and test firing the engines at its rocket redevelopment facility in Macgregor, Texas before it was transported back to Cape Canaveral. A hold-down test fire of the engines was done again a few days before the March 30 launch.
The booster rocket and its engines represents two-thirds of the $62 million cost, while the price tag to refuel the rocket is only $200,000 to $300,000 according to Musk. He believes the reusability could lead to a 100-fold reduction in the cost to put goods in space.
SpaceX has invested $1 billion in rocket reusability. Next trick: re-flying Falcons within a day of landing, with just an inspection and a re-fuel.
"Now our aspiration will be zero hardware changes, re-flight in 24 hours, the only thing that changes is we reload propellant," Musk related. "Just like an aircraft, really."
SpaceX has leased a facility at Port Canaveral that will enable it to process rocket boosters rather than sending them to Texas for testing for their long term goal of full and rapid rocket reusability. Long celebrated as a prominent cruise port, Port Canaveral will be soon know as a "rocket ship port."
"It's exciting to us and the people of Brevard County because the economic benefits are going to be tremendous," said Jerry Allender of Port Canaveral Authority. "So we're looking for great expansion, not only from SpaceX, but also with any other aerospace companies that want to use the port facilities."
All this is building the foundation to Musk's end game: a six-month spaceflight to Mars where he envisions a permanent human settlement.
"I hope people start to think of it as a real goal to which we should aspire, to be a space-faring civilization and be out there among the stars."