Musk Confirms Falcon 9 Reusability Experiment Worked

Musk Confirms Falcon 9 Reusability Experiment Worked

SpaceX’s announcement today that it is filing suit against the Air Force over a launch vehicle contract overshadowed other company news — confirmation that the reusability test of the Falcon 9 first stage last week was successful.

SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk began a press conference at the National Press Club this afternoon by talking about the “good news” story of the Falcon 9 test before moving on to the news about the lawsuit.

The April 18 launch of SpaceX’s CRS-3 cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) included a test of returning the Falcon 9’s first stage to Earth and deploying landing legs as though it was returning to land.  The goal is for these stages to return and land at Cape Canaveral and be reused.  Musk tweeted that day that initial data showed the rocket stage had reignited its engine after separating from the second stage and Dragon spacecraft (which went on to Earth orbit), descended vertically, deployed its landing legs and survived for 8 seconds after reaching the water.   Today’s comments confirmed that account and provided additional information.

He called the test a “huge milestone … No one has soft landed a liquid rocket boost stage before.” That is true, although NASA routinely recovered space shuttle solid rocket boosters (SRBs) from the ocean and reused them.

A boat hired by SpaceX could not get close enough to see the event or recover the stage.  Musk said that another test will take place on the next Falcon 9 launch, a commercial launch for Orbcomm, and laughingly said he was going to hire bigger boats.  He also said that the April 18 launch just happened to take place during a huge storm at sea and the landing area was in the deep ocean.  He is hoping for better weather for the Orbcomm launch and the rocket stage will drop into the ocean closer to shore, increasing the chances it can be recovered.   The rocket stage was destroyed by wave action, Musk said.  It was two days before any boat could reach the area and all that was left were pieces of the interstage section, one of the four landing legs and other “bits and pieces.”

SpaceX did get some video of the reentry (presumably from an aircraft that was tracking the flight), but the “link was very weak,” Musk said today.  They are trying to clean it up and will post it on the SpaceX website.

Musk said tests will continue over the ocean until he is comfortable it can land with accuracy.  He hopes to be able to return one of these stages to land later this year and is working with the Air Force to identify landing locations at Cape Canaveral.  The plan is to refly that stage next year.   Eventually, he believes it will be possible to return a stage to land and reuse it the same day.  Current SpaceX launch prices do not assume reusability and 70 percent of the cost is associated with the first stage  Therefore, prices could drop “as much as 70 percent” in the long run if reusability proves out, but that depends on being able to refly it with minimal work.  He also noted that customers need to be comfortable with the idea.

The space shuttle is the only operational reusable launch vehicle ever developed and it never achieved promised economies.  Musk repeated what he has said many times — that reusability will only be cost effective if it is “both rapid and complete.”  The shuttle was only partially reusable (the large External Tank was not reusable) and turnaround times were months, not weeks or days.

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