SpaceX targeting 24-hour turnaround in 2019, full reusability still in the works

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WASHINGTON — SpaceX has set an ambitious goal for 2019: using the same Falcon 9 booster to conduct two launches in 24 hours.

Such a feat would require more than just the rapid turnaround of Falcon 9’s reusable first-stage booster. It would also require a rapid turnaround of Air Force range support and some speedy payload integration — assuming SpaceX doesn’t want to launch an empty fairing second time around.

But Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and chief executive, has never been shy about setting bold goals.  

“We intend to demonstrate two orbital launches of the same Falcon 9 vehicle within 24 hours no later than next year,” Musk said May 10 during a call with reporters. “That will be, I think, truly remarkable to launch the same orbit-class rocket twice in one day.”

Musk mentioned the goal in the hours leading up to the first launch attempt of the Block 5 Falcon 9, which is designed with a first stage that can launch 10 times without refurbishment. That launch, carrying Bangladesh’s first telecom satellite, Bangabandhu-1, was rescheduled for today after a last-minute glitch scrubbed the countdown with 58 seconds left on the clock.

“Next year is when we intend … [to do] the same-day reflight of the same rocket,” Musk said. “I think that’s really a key milestone.”

The ability to relaunch the same first stage in a single day would help SpaceX bolster its case that a used rocket is more reliable than a new one. SpaceX executives often reference air travel as a model for future launch activity. Musk reiterated that point.

“Would you rather be flying in an aircraft that’s never had a test flight before, or would you rather fly in an aircraft that has flown many times successfully?” he said.

Musk said he thinks customers eventually “will actually prefer to fly on a flight-proven rocket than one that has never flown.”

SpaceX has given discounts to some early customers of Falcon 9 rockets with used first stages to ease their acceptance, particularly among risk-averse satellite operators who might otherwise be reluctant to launch a spacecraft costing $100 million or more on rocket booster already subjected to the rigors of launch and landing.

Musk said SpaceX lowered prices from “about $60 million to about $50 million for a reflown booster,” and expects “to see a steady reduction in prices” going forward. He cautioned though that SpaceX has lots of fixed costs, its future Starlink satellite internet constellation and development of the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) that require revenue from launches, meaning prices can only go so low. Ocean recoveries, which require sending drone ships out to sea for landing Falcon 9 first stages, also cost “a few million dollars,” he said.

Given the extensive modifications made to Block 5, SpaceX will take extra time after the Bangabandhu-1 launch to disassemble and inspect the rocket.

“Ironically, we need to take it apart to confirm that it does not need to be taken apart,” Musk said. “This rocket probably won’t refly for probably a couple of months. But by late this year we should be seeing substantial reflight of Block 5 vehicles, probably with Block 5 boosters seeing their third, maybe their fourth reflight.”

Musk estimated the Falcon 9 Block 5 will make “something on the order of 300 flights,” before retiring. SpaceX plans to succeed the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy with the BFR, and is targeting a cargo mission to Mars with the larger rocket in 2022.

Full Reusability

SpaceX has attempted, so far unsuccessfully, to recover the Falcon 9 payload fairings used to protect satellites on their ascent through the atmosphere. The company has also talked about retrieving the upper stage instead of letting it burn up over the Pacific Ocean.

Musk said SpaceX won’t attempt fairing recovery on the Bangabandhu-1 mission, but is intent on saving the $6 million protective shrouds in the future.

Upper stage recovery is a longer-term goal.

“I’m certain we can achieve reusability of the upper stage, the question is simply what the mass penalty is,” he said. “We don’t want to put too much engineering effort into that relative to BFR, and we obviously will not take any action that creates risk for the ascent phase of the rocket.”

Over the course of this year, SpaceX will gradually add thermal protection to the upper stage to optimize the stage for the return journey to Earth, Musk said. For near-term flights, Musk said the goal will be mainly to gather data such as reentry temperature, altitude and health, likely using Iridium Communication’s satellite constellation to relay the data.

If SpaceX can reuse every part of the Falcon 9, “we would be able to reduce the cost for launch by an order of magnitude,” Musk said. “And then as our launch rate increases, we can further optimize the per-launch costs.”

Musk estimated 60 percent of the Falcon 9’s marginal cost comes from the first stage, 20 percent from the second stage, 10 percent for the fairing, and 10 percent for the everything else associated with the launch. Propellant costs a negligible $300,000 to $400,000, he said.

Musk said it is possible to reduce the marginal costs for a Falcon 9 launch to “down under $5 or $6 million,” in around three years.