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Reusability: The Key to Making Human Life Multi-Planetary
“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred. A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.”
SpaceX believes a fully and rapidly reusable rocket is the pivotal breakthrough needed to substantially reduce the cost of space access. The majority of the launch cost comes from building the rocket, which flies only once. Compare that to a commercial airliner – each new plane costs about the same as Falcon 9, but can fly multiple times per day, and conduct tens of thousands of flights over its lifetime. Following the commercial model, a rapidly reusable space launch vehicle could reduce the cost of traveling to space by a hundredfold.
While most rockets are designed to burn up on reentry, SpaceX rockets are designed not only to withstand reentry, but also to return to the launch pad for a vertical landing. Through reusability testing both on the ground and during flight, SpaceX is making great strides toward this goal.
Grasshopper Reusability Test Program
SpaceX’s reusability testing began with the Grasshopper program. SpaceX’s Grasshopper was a 10-story Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing (VTVL) vehicle consisting of a Falcon 9 first stage, a single Merlin 1D engine, four steel landing legs with hydraulic dampers, and a steel support structure. In 2013, Grasshopper completed a series of eight flight tests with successful landings, the highest reaching 744 meters high.
Falcon 9 Reusable (Falcon 9R) Test Program
Following the completion of the Grasshopper testing program in 2013, SpaceX conducted a series of tests using the F9R development test vehicle – an advanced prototype for the world's first reusable rocket. The F9R test vehicle is essentially a Falcon 9 first stage with landing legs designed to test the precision landing techniques needed to return a rocket to Earth intact.F9R completed successively higher tests in McGregor, Texas, topping out with a 1000m test using steerable grid fins.
First Stage Flight Testing
In addition to the F9R development vehicle testing in 2014, SpaceX also made its first attempts to return a first stage to Earth during an actual mission. During a nominal mission, the first stage delivers the second stage and payload to a targeted orbit and then reenters Earth’s atmosphere to conduct a precision landing – initially on an autonomous spaceport drone ship at sea, and eventually on land.
In 2014, SpaceX twice successfully returned a Falcon 9 first stage from space and landed it in the Atlantic Ocean. Using lessons learned from those attempts, in January 2015 SpaceX attempted a precision landing on the drone ship, nicknamed “Just Read the Instructions”. The rocket made it to the drone ship, but landed hard. During a second precision landing attempt in February, this time over water, the rocket impressively came within 10 meters of its target. Unfortunately, extreme weather prevented recovery.
The video below shows the first stage landing following the Falcon 9 launch in July 2014.
SpaceX will continue to attempt landings whenever the mission profile allows, and with at least a dozen launches planned over the next year, we are confident that a first stage will soon land on a drone ship in the ocean, and not long after that, on land.