SpaceX’s Triumph: Reusable rockets and the new frontier

The Impossible

After months of trial and error, Elon Musk’s SpaceX company has successfully achieved what was once the impossible – landing a rocket on a barge at sea. Despite having successfully landed a rocket on land in December of last year, the company’s ability to translate that achievement onto a sea-based platform was regarded as essential to making recyclable rocket-launch vehicles a reality.

Currently, rockets are either destroyed or lost after every mission into space, which means that an entirely new launch vessel needs to be constructed for each mission. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 aims to turn that on its head, with a construction cost of a much more affordable $6o million whilst using only $200,000 in fuel. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell believes that if they get it right, re-usability of the Falcon 9 would reduce launch costs by about 30%. Compare these costs to NASA’s space shuttle missions which cost between $450 million and $1.6 billion per launch.

SpaceX is now one step closer to realizing its dream of narrowing the cost of space travel to that of simply refuelling the launch vessel.

Impending launch of private craft to International Space Station
CEO Elon Musk in the mission control room at the Hawthorne, California-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp., on April 19, 2012. His company SpaceX aims to revolutionize space travel by making it more cost effective and affordable.

“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred.  A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.” —Elon Musk

Wind, waves and fire

Getting sea based landings right will be essential to space travels future. Put simply, it is the type of landing that will be required for the vast majority of launches returning from orbit.

The specialized drone ship is a hard target to hit despite being as large as a football field, and is constantly in motion above the water. Previous attempts have resulted in spectacular failures, however the reason that SpaceX continues to focus its efforts on getting this done right is the fact that if they limited landings to land based platforms, the Falcon 9 would need to use a lot more fuel to correct its trajectory which in turn limits the size of its launch payload.  With a sea-based platform, the drone ship itself does a lot of the work by pre-emptively moving into position based on the rockets trajectory from launch. This would decrease the distance it needs to travel and thereby save the company in fuel and maintenance costs.

According to SpaceX, the process would reduce the cost of launching objects into space by as much as a factor of 100 because the majority of the cost of space travel itself comes from building the rocket which in the past, only flew once. In its own analogy, SpaceX talks of how its revolutionary Falcon 9 rocket costs as much as a commercial airliner to build, and they want it to make multiple flights over its life rather than being built from scratch for every trip.

The Falcon 9 system’s re-usability visiualized. Courtesy of SpaceX:

Cautious Optimism

The future success of the Falcon 9 will hinge upon the rockets design capabilities. Whilst it is nowhere near as complex as NASA’s retired Space Shuttle, it will still experience the same conditions that blew out NASA’s own expectations at the cost for a reusable launch vehicle. The 14 story rocket body can experience temperature fluctuations of upwards of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit during its trip through the atmosphere. The Falcon 9 will also be under extreme pressures and forces as it cuts through the air as it will reach a maximum speed between Mach 5.5 and 7.5. It is for there reasons that Steve Poulos, NASA’s project manager on the Space Shuttle program urges caution to SpaceX’s claims, pointing out that once the costs for refurbishment and inspections are factored in, the costs per flight may actually be around half a million dollars.

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