San Francisco: The next launch by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. appears almost routine by now: A satellite owned by Bangladesh will blast into orbit on top of a reusable Falcon 9 rocket, then the booster will land back on a drone ship to be launched again at a later date. SpaceX has already done this 24 times—11 by land, 13 by sea.
But Thursday’s launch will mark the debut of a slightly different rocket, called Falcon 9 Block 5, that SpaceX has crafted to more quickly send an already used rocket back into space. The new rocket is “designed to be capable of 10 or more flights with very limited refurbishment," SpaceX said ahead of the launch.
Block 5 is the latest—and final—major upgrade to Falcon 9. Although the company hasn’t spelled out all of the changes, there will be a stronger heat shield for the trip back through the Earth’s atmosphere and new retractable landing legs. SpaceX will likely detail more of the changes during Thursday’s webcast.
This is how chief executive officer Elon Musk prefers to work on his big products. At Tesla Inc., which is also run by Musk, customers receive over-the-air software updates to the electric vehicles sitting in their driveways, something other automakers have been slow to do. The engineers at SpaceX are likewise engaged in tweaks to their rockets. Each launch of the Falcon 9—along with the two dozen boosters now recovered—has given SpaceX insight into performance against the intense environment of space. This data help improve the next iteration of the rocket. The steady stream of technical improvements helps bolster the business model. “The big breakthrough of Block 5 is it represents a new generation of design that they plan to re-fly 10 times," said Luigi Peluso, an aerospace and defence consultant at AlixPartners. “That’s enormous from an economic perspective." The current cost of a Falcon 9 launch is roughly $62 million, according to SpaceX’s website. Greg Autry, a professor at the University of Southern California and a former Nasa liaison to the White House, estimates that the booster accounts for roughly $35 million of the total cost. Flying more regularly will allow SpaceX to lower costs.
“If they can build a rocket that good, all they need to do is add fuel," said Autry. “They don’t need to pass the savings on to customers, because their launch manifest is already full. Right now, SpaceX has data on boosters that have flown once or twice. They are probably being conservative when they say 10."
There’s another imperative beyond bringing down costs. Boeing Co. and SpaceX have contracts with Nasa to ferry American astronauts for the first time since the Space Shuttle program went dark in 2011, and each company needs to complete a flurry of tests over the coming months. SpaceX is slated to launch an un-crewed demonstration mission to the International Space Station as well as an in-flight abort test, which is meant to show how the crew compartment can safely pull away from the rocket in an emergency. Those milestones are prerequisites for the first test flight with a human crew.
But before Nasa will allow SpaceX to fly astronauts, the agency wants to see that Block 5 can fly, repeatedly, with no issues. “Nasa will require seven successful flights," said Cheryl Warner, a spokeswoman for the agency. “In human spaceflight, demonstration ‘testing like we fly’ is a long standing tenet for safe operations and understanding of critical systems."
Boeing is also going through extensive testing. The next major hurdle for Boeing is a pad abort test, which Nasa says is currently targeted for July at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. This test will show that the Boeing system can safely lift astronauts away from danger in the event of a launch emergency.
SpaceX probably won’t be ready to fly humans by late 2019, followed by Boeing in early 2020, the Government Accountability Office said earlier this month. The congressional watchdog cited Block 5 certification and cracking found in the Falcon 9 engine turbine as hurdles for SpaceX. Boeing faces concerns that its heat shield design could damage the craft during re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere. SpaceX flew a record 18 launches in 2017 and is targeting roughly 30 launches this year. If successful, Thursday’s launch will be the ninth so far. The launch window opens at 4:12pm East Coast time, and SpaceX will attempt to land the first stage on a drone-ship named “Of Course I Still Love You."