SpaceX demonstrates rocket reusability with SES-10 launch and booster landing

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WASHINGTON — SpaceX has completed the first reusable orbital launch since the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle, delivering the SES-10 telecommunications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit with a rocket that first flew last April for NASA.

SpaceX launched the Falcon 9 at 6:27 p.m. Eastern from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center, achieving a historic milestone for the company that hung its cape on the claim that rockets can be re-flown, and that reusability is necessary to take humanity to Mars.

SES entrusted SpaceX with SES-10, a 5,300-kilogram satellite equipped with 55 Ku-band beams for television broadcast and internet connectivity across Latin America. SES-10 is the second satellite the Luxembourg-based satellite operator flew on what would classify as an inaugural flight for SpaceX. In 2013, SpaceX launched SES-8 on a Falcon 9, marking the first time the rocket ever delivered a spacecraft to geostationary transfer orbit. All previous Falcon 9 missions had been to low Earth orbit.

SpaceX landed the first stage of the rocket a second time, returning the booster to the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You in the Atlantic Ocean moments before the second stage engine finished burning.

SES-10, built by France-based Airbus Defence and Space, separated from the second stage about 32 minutes after liftoff, completing the commercial purpose of the mission. The company confirmed the satellite was operating as planned after separation.

Falcon 9 SES-10 launch
A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off March 30 from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on the first mission featuring a previously-flown first stage. Credit: SpaceX webcast

In a pre-recorded video shown during the SpaceX webcast, Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX, described the SES-10 mission as “the fundamental key demonstration that our technology is capable of reflight.”

SpaceX spent four months evaluating, testing and refurbishing the rocket, which previously launched with a Dragon spacecraft carrying supplies to the International Space Station on April 8, 2016, before clearing the rocket for this mission. Shotwell said the goal is to reduce that time from four months down to the same day.

Shotwell said SpaceX is working on a final iteration of the Falcon 9 that will debut later this year that can re-launch multiple times.

“The final vehicle design spin that we are doing on Falcon 9 — that we will be flying later this year — that should be capable of up to 10 or even more [launches],” she said.

Earlier this month at the Satellite 2017 conference, Shotwell said SpaceX anticipates launching up to six pre-flown boosters this year. The “flight-proven” rockets, as SpaceX calls them, should enable the launch services provider to execute on its backlog, which currently includes several delayed missions.

In the long term, SpaceX intends to use a larger rocket dubbed the Interplanetary Transport System to take crew and supplies to Mars and other worlds.

“Given the goals of SpaceX are to provide space transportation to allow people to move to other planets,” said Shotwell, “we are not one-way trip to Mars people. We want to make sure that whoever we take can come back, and from that perspective, you need to have a reusable system. We want to provide a full transportation system, and that doesn’t mean one way, that means two ways.”

Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of SpaceX, described the launch as one that “is going to ultimately lead a huge revolution in spaceflight.”

“It’s been 15 years to get to this point,” he said. “It’s taken us a long time. [There were] a lot of difficult steps along with way, but I am just incredibly proud of the SpaceX team for being able to achieve this incredible milestone in the history of space.”

Payload fairing recovery and future plans

Musk said in a post-mission press conference that SpaceX was able to recover the two halves of the payload fairing as well after the launch. The fairing, which shields the satellite on its way to space, costs $6 million, he said.

“The fairing has its own thruster control system and a steerable parachute,” he said. “It’s like its own little spacecraft.”

SpaceX might also try to save the second stage. This wasn’t in the company’s original plans, Musk said, but since the second stage already burns up in the atmosphere at the end of each mission, he said there was nothing really to lose by trying.

Martin Halliwell, chief technology officer of SES, said his company has three more launches with SpaceX this year and is considering flying two of them on flight-proven Falcon 9 rockets.

Including SES-10, SpaceX has completed four launches this year. Musk said SpaceX has around 20 more launches to perform by year’s end.

Musk declined to give an exact price reduction for flight proven Falcon 9s, but said he is “highly confident that is it possible to achieve a 100-fold reduction in the cost of space transport.”

That 100-fold drop won’t translate immediately to lower cost launches, he said, because SpaceX needs to recoup research and development costs for reusability.

“But it will certainly be less than the current price of our rockets, obviously, and it will be far lower than any other rocket in the world,” Musk said.