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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 can not only withstand reentry, but can also successfuly land back on Earth and refly again.
World’s First Orbital-Class Rocket Reflight
In March 2017, SpaceX achieved the world’s first reflight of an orbital class rocket. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launched a geosynchronous communications satellite on March 30, 2017, from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The first stage for the mission previously supported a space station cargo resupply launch for NASA in April 2016. Following stage separation, the first stage successfully returned to Earth for a second time, landing on a drone ship stationed in the Atlantic ocean. This successful reflight represents a historic milestone on the road to full and rapid rocket reusability.
First Stage Landings
Prior to the first reflight of a Falcon 9, SpaceX successfully landed multiple rocket first stages. On December 21, 2015, Falcon 9 delivered 11 communications satellites to orbit, and the first stage returned and landed at Landing Zone 1 -- the first-ever orbital class rocket landing.
Then, on April 8, 2016, during a resupply mission for NASA, a Falcon 9 first stage successfully landed on SpaceX’s autonomous spaceport drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. This first stage was notably reflown in March 2017, representing the first-ever reflight of an orbital-class rocket stage. The ability to recover first stages at sea is an important component of SpaceX’s reusability program because certain missions do not leave enough fuel margin for the first stage to return all the way back to land.
SpaceX will continue to attempt landing Falcon 9 rockets either on land or on the drone ship at sea on almost all missions going forward. These technical achievements are made possible by innovative engineering upgrades to the vehicle, including grid fins, cold-gas thrusters, and landing legs.
Prior to successfully landing a Falcon 9 first stage, SpaceX had twice reentered a Falcon 9 first stage from space and landed it in the ocean. From there, SpaceX moved on to attempt using the drone ship as a landing platform during January and April 2015 missions. While the rocket did not stick the landing on these first two attempts, SpaceX gathered important data each time that would ultimately lead to a successful landing.
Grasshopper and F9R Test Programs
SpaceX’s initial reusability tests using the Grasshopper and F9R test vehicles took place in 2012–2014 at SpaceX’s test facility in McGregor, Texas. The Grasshopper Vertical Take Off, Vertical Landing (VTVL) vehicle was essentially a Falcon 9 first stage with one Merlin 1D engine and attached steel landing legs. In 2012–2013, Grasshopper completed a series of eight flight tests with landings, the highest reaching 744 meters high. Following the retirement of Grasshopper, SpaceX began testing the F9R development vehicle, which had three Merlin 1D engines for additional thrust. F9R completed successively higher tests in 2014 topping out with a 1000m test using steerable grid fins. These overland tests provided invaluable information for future flight testing during orbital missions, ultimately leading to the first rocket landing in 2015.