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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 reaching Earth orbit 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 on the ground in McGregor, Texas and flight testing, SpaceX is making great strides toward this goal.
Falcon 9 Reusable (Falcon 9R) Development Program
Beginning in March 2014, SpaceX began testing the F9R development test vehicle - an advanced prototype for the world's first reusable rocket. The test vehicle is essentially a Falcon 9 first stage with landing legs designed to test the technologies needed to return a rocket back to Earth intact.
First Stage Landing
In April 2014, SpaceX successfully landed a Falcon 9 first stage in the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in history. Shortly after launching the second stage and Dragon spacecraft on their way to orbit, the first stage separated and conducted a reentry and landing burn before making a soft water landing. High seas prevented recovery of the booster, but SpaceX gathered critical data to support future reusability testing.
As of October 2014, SpaceX has landed two first stages in the ocean. The video below shows the first stage landing following the Falcon 9 ORBCOMM launch in July 2014.
Grasshopper Reusability Test Program
Prior to the F9R program, SpaceX began reusability testing with the Grasshopper program. SpaceX’s Grasshopper is 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.SpaceX will continue to conduct reusability testing both at the Rocket Development Facility in McGregor and eventually at Spaceport America in New Mexico, where it will be possible to test at higher altitudes, do more with unpowered guidance, and prove out landing cases that are more flight-like.