When SpaceX announced 2 years ago that it was trying to recover the first stage of its Falcon 9 rockets after a launch, most of us thought Elon Musk had finally bitten off more than he could chew. Reusing rockets? That’s nuts, right? Now, after several failed attempts, SpaceX has gone ahead and done it. At the end of March, it placed a communications satellite in orbit using a rocket whose first stage had flown once before. What’s even more incredible is the first stage was recovered again and may be used to launch a third rocket sometime in the future.
Elon Musk has said that using rockets only once is like scrapping a 747 after its first flight. The key to affordable space travel is recapturing and reusing the components that make it possible. On the latest flight, SpaceX also recovered one half of the payload fairing that protects the cargo from the heat and stress of a launch. It’s a small thing compared to the total cost of a rocket, perhaps, but that fairing costs $6 million.
Next up on the agenda is recovering the second stage of a Falcon 9 rocket. That’s a far more difficult feet because the second stage is much higher up and travelling significantly faster than the first stage when it is done with its part of a mission.
So how much is SpaceX saving by recovering and reusing its rockets? Gwynne Shotwell, the president of SpaceX, told the Space Symposium conference that refurbishing the “pre-flown” rocket cost less than half the cost of building a new one. Eventually, Musk says his goal is to slash the cost of rockets by 90%. The goal now is to recover rockets, refurbish them, and use them again within 24 hours.
That has more than a few of its competitors nervous. Until Space X came on the scene, United Launch Alliance, an amalgam of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, had the US rocket launch business pretty much to itself and could charge customers — including NASA — whatever it wanted. ULA relies heavily on the Atlas V rocket which has an enviable reliability record of over 70 successful launches without mishap. SpaceX has had two spectacular failures with the Falcon 9.
But ULA has now cut the price for using the Atlas V by one third in response to the challenge from SpaceX. It recently lost a contract with the Air Force because it was substantially underbid by SpaceX. “We’re seeing that price is even more important than it had been in the past,” Tory Bruno, chief executive of United Launch Alliance, or ULA, said during an interview at the U.S. Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. “We’re dropping the cost of Atlas almost every day. Atlas is now down more than a third in its cost.”
Until ULA figures out how to recycle its rockets, there is only so far it can drop its price. Its executives must now feel like the CEOs of the world’s major car companies who once dismissed Musk and Tesla as jokes. Now those auto industry leaders are like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, looking over their shoulders and asking each other, “Who are those guys?”
By breaking ULA’s stranglehold on the rocket launch business, SpaceX has encouraged other competitors to think about getting in on the action. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Virginia based Orbital ATK are planning to compete for government contracts with new rockets of their own. Like SpaceX, Blue Origin is working on recovering and reusing part of launch vehicles.
Where is all this leading? SpaceX has taken what it calls “substantial deposits” from two individuals who want to be the first space tourist. They will fly to the moon and back sometime in the next few years, after SpaceX has successfully flown its Dragon space capsule with real people on board. After that? It’s on to Mars. Elon says he wants to get the price of a Mars journey down to around $200,000 in time.
Musk is becoming almost a mythical figure. Part Thomas Edison, part Henry Ford, he has a profound effect on everything he becomes involved with. “Disruptive” is probably too mild a word for him. He doesn’t overcome barriers, he shatters them. If mankind one day learns to build colonies on Mars, it will be because of his vision and determination to see things not as they are but as they could be. If he wasn’t an immigrant, he would make an interesting president.
Source: The New York Times Photo credit: SpaceX via TechCrunch