SpaceX and the New Age of Reus­able Rocket­ry

 From new kids on the block, to the world’s pre-eminent rocket dynamo in 16 years flat, SpaceX has carved out a bold name for itself for its innovative approach to aerospace.

In April of 2016, just moments after SpaceX landed the world’s first Falcon-9 rocket on drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean, Elon Musk remarked “We’ll be successful, ironically, when it becomes boring” adding that when the public response is “Oh yeah, another landing, no news there,” then SpaceX will have achieved its goals.

Since then, SpaceX has made considerable progress in defining themselves as a revolutionary, and notedly nonstandard rocket launch provider, with intentions far beyond simple orbital cargo delivery. Though their launches may have become routine, their operational capability has far outgrown what many believed probable, and in addition: their last year in spaceflight was both their busiest, and most successful yet.

With 18 consecutively successful flights completed in 2017, accompanied by 14 booster landings, and 5 total booster reflights, SpaceX had a breakout year, far outpacing any other U.S or international competitor. In fact, Elon Musk’s team of engineers managed, as a private entity, to keep pace with the entire country of Russia for the vast majority of the year in the category of total launches. Only missing out by a handful in the end.  Musk’s vision to fundamentally change the way humans approach space travel appears to be gaining traction with a remarkable forward projection of 30 or more launches in 2018. Many of which will be reflown boosters.

Before SpaceX came along to change the equation, the standard model for orbital delivery of a payload typically assumed the near, or complete destruction of the launch vehicle which sent it skyward. With the exception of the Space Shuttle which, though partially reused, was quite expensive to prepare for reflight, and hasn’t seen service since 2011.

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Company after company, building these enormous rockets — engineering masterpieces of near-symphonic quality that somehow in a perplexingly tragic juxtaposition to how hard they are to properly design, are sent on missions which ultimately result in their obliteration. One launch, one delivery, then the trash-heap — every single time. Billions of dollars of precision boosters, components, rockets and thrusters have existed along this same methodology. Build, launch, destroy. Build again. SpaceX’s approach however aims to fundamentally change that, by incrementally introducing reusability to rockets that vertically take off and land.

No other industry sees such expansive waste in the transport vehicle used to deliver a product or person. Commercial airlines don’t abandon their 747’s after one flight from New York to Berlin, railways don’t destroy locomotives after a single haul, and automobiles see extended reuse throughout their life-cycle. So why not rockets? It is this very question that SpaceX has aimed to answer: Why not reuse rockets as well? Especially since they are so expensive.

When asked what kind of edge reusability gives SpaceX above its competitors during a post launch conference in 2016, Elon Musk commented that “The cost to refuel our rocket is only 200-300 thousands dollars but the cost of the rocket itself is $60 million.” He continued to say: “It’s really quite fundamental. If you’ve got a rocket that can be fully and rapidly reused, it’s somewhere in the order of 100-fold cost reduction – in marginal costs.”

The Hawthorne, Ca. headquartered Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX)  has earned a  distinct reputation for walking on the razor’s edge in the aerospace industry. Pushing the technological needle forward, while incurring several complete losses of launch vehicle and customer payloads. In 2015 an in-flight engineering failure result in the catastrophic loss of SpaceX’s 7th resupply run of critical space items while on their way to International Space Station. Nearly a year later during a routine fueling test before launch, an explosion destroyed yet another Falcon 9 rocket. A multi-million dollar satellite sitting on top that Facebook was intending to use was also lost, while also incurring severe damage to their launch facilities in Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan openly commented that though he was “Disappointed as well” in these incidents, he made sure to note that “We’ve had failures in Vanguard, Redstone, Titan, and certainly the Atlas 1.” Space is hard, and explosive growing pains appear to be part of the process for experimental rockets. Though if SpaceX is to be considered a true contender they will have to continue to display the reliability of their rockets. Especially if they are to be trusted by NASA to safely deliver crewed vehicles to orbit and beyond in the future. The Falcon 9 rocket has served as a workhorse for SpaceX, routinely demonstrating their ability to recover their rocket after an orbital delivery, while serving as a platform to test features, and upgrade components for future rocket designs. It has helped establish them as a contender in the launch industry, while also paving the way for the next iteration of rockets in their chain of production, the Falcon Heavy.

With the introduction of the Falcon Heavy, SpaceX intended to take the title as having the world’s most powerful actively flying heavy-lift launch vehicle. Which also happens to employ three reusable booster cores, drastically reducing its production costs. The Heavy emerging can be seen as sign that SpaceX is not only healthy and innovating as a company, but also growing strategically to outperform its competitors.  By introducing a heavy-lift rocket, SpaceX is expanding their potential service capability, challenging their competitors, while continuing to build on the core tenants of reusability they’ve been pioneering  Even though SpaceX was unsure Falcon Heavy’s maiden voyage was uncertain it would even make it off the pad, soon enough it will become ordinary. “There’s a real good chance that vehicle does not make it to orbit. We want to make sure and set expectations accordingly. I hope that it makes it far enough away from the pad that it does not cause pad damage. I would consider even that a win to be honest. Major pucker factor” Elon Musk said during a talk at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference.


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