SpaceX Launches, Lands Reused First Stage, Recovers Payload Fairing

SpaceX Launches, Lands Reused First Stage, Recovers Payload Fairing

SpaceX successfully launched the SES-10 communications satellite today with a reused Falcon 9 first stage.  The first stage then was recovered for a second time, safely landing on a drone ship at sea.  SpaceX CEO and Lead Designer Elon Musk said his goal is for first stages to be used 10 times with no changes other than replacing the fuel, or 100 times with a moderate amount of hardware refurbishment.  Also, for the first time SpaceX recovered the payload fairing that protects the spacecraft during the launch.

During a post-launch press conference, Musk and Martin Halliwell, SES Chief Technology Officer, called the launch historic. 

Lifting off on time at 6:27 pm ET from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A), the Falcon 9 first and second stages safely delivered SES-10 into a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).  Onboard systems will take it the rest of the way to its final destination in geostationary orbit above the equator.

Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 with reused first stage from Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A, March 30, 2017.  Photo credit:  SpaceX.

The rocket’s first stage originally was used to launch a commercial cargo mission for NASA to the International Space Station on April 8, 2016. It landed on one of SpaceX’s two autonomous drone ships, Of Course I Still Love You, and was returned to the company and readied for a second launch.   During the press conference, Musk said his goal is to make these stages ready for reuse within 24 hours and use them 10 times, replacing only the fuel. If they undergo a moderate amount of hardware refurbishment, they could be used 100 times, he said.

As has become common practice for SpaceX, after the first stage finished sending the second stage and the satellite on their way to orbit, it returned and landed — for a second time — on the same drone ship as in 2016.

Falcon 9 first stage after landing on drone ship Of Course I Still Love You for the second time, March 30, 2017.  This is the first reuse of a Falcon 9 first stage; this one landed on the same drone ship on April 8, 2016 after sending a cargo mission to the International Space Station for NASA.  Photo credit:  Screengrab from SpaceX webcast.

For the first time, SpaceX also recovered the payload fairing, the conical shaped structure on top of the rocket that surrounds and protects the spacecraft during launch.  The fairing separates from the spacecraft in two sections during the launch sequence — in this case, 3 minutes and 49 seconds after launch — and usually falls into the ocean and breaks into pieces. SpaceX outfitted these two fairing sections with parachutes so they could be recovered, which apparently will become standard practice.

The second stage (or upper stage) is not recovered. In the past, Musk has said that is not in SpaceX’s plans.  Today, however, he said he might give it try: “What’s the worst that could happen?  It blows up?  It would anyway.”

Halliwell praised SpaceX’s engineering expertise that made it all possible.  “The proof is in the pudding and we got it.”

Falcon 9 is SpaceX’s only rocket at the moment, but it is developing a much more capable rocket, the Falcon Heavy.  The “9” in Falcon 9 refers to its nine engines.  Falcon Heavy will have 27 engines, all firing simultaneously.  Musk joked that they thought about calling it Falcon 27, but the name sounded “too scary.”  Falcon Heavy uses three boosters (each with nine engines) strapped together.  For the first launch, two of the three will be reused Falcon 9 first stages, he said.

Falcon Heavy will be launched from LC-39A.  SpaceX’s other East Coast launch pad, Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) adjacent to KSC, is still being repaired following last September’s explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and its Amos-6 communications satellite during fueling for a routine pre-launch static fire test.  The first Falcon Heavy launch will be “risky,” Musk conceded, and he does not want to launch it from LC-39A until SLC-40 is repaired just in case something goes awry.   He does not want to be in a position where both of his East Coast launch pads are inoperable.  He also stressed that the company needs to catch up on launches since many have been delayed because of the September explosion and subsequent efforts to diagnose and fix what went wrong.  Getting those customers launched is the first priority and Falcon Heavy is second, he stressed.

Nonetheless, Musk said the current plan is to launch the first Falcon Heavy this summer.  The launch date has been postponed a number of times already, however, and few would be surprised if further delays were encountered.

Musk’s long term plan is to send a million people to Mars and for that, he insists, reusable rockets are essential to keep costs down.  He said lightheartedly today that the goal is to get people on Mars “before we’re dead and the company is dead.” 

Musk said reusability has the potential to reduce costs 100-fold.  How much prices will be reduced is an open question, however.  For the Falcon 9, Musk said that reflown — or “flight proven” — boosters would have a “meaningful” discounted price eventually, but for now the company needs to pay off the development costs.   SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said last year that customers could save 10 percent by agreeing to use a flight proven Falcon 9 first stage.  The price for the SES-10 launch is not publicly known.

SES, one of the three largest communications satellite operators in the world, is a long-standing SpaceX supporter and was its first commercial customer with the launch of SES-8 in 2013.  Halliwell said that the media and others keep suggesting that SES is taking a “huge chance” by being first but he disagrees.  He said SES works closely with SpaceX and has transparency, a depth of relationship, and access to engineering specifics that “allows us to have confidence.”  SES has three more launches on SpaceX Falcon 9s this year and is considering using flight proven boosters on two of them.

Musk said it has taken 15 years to get to this point and today was a “huge day, my mind is blown.”   Halliwell added that after SES-8 he predicted “the industry would be shaking in its boots and I think it is shaking now, I really do.”

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