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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 or ocean landing site for a vertical landing. Through reusability testing during flight and on the ground in McGregor, Texas, SpaceX has made great strides toward this goal.
First Stage Flight Testing
In order to re-fly a Falcon 9 first stage, it must first return safely to Earth after delivering the second stage and payload to orbit. Current efforts are focused on reentering the first stage through Earth’s atmosphere and conducting precision landings – initially on an autonomous spaceport drone ship at sea, and eventually on land.
In 2014, SpaceX twice reentered 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. SpaceX attempted a second precision landing the following month, this time over water, and the rocket impressively came within 10 meters of its target. Unfortunately, extreme weather prevented recovery.
Falcon 9’s first stage landed on the drone ship for the first time, within 10 meters of its target, in April 2015. This time, however, high lateral velocity at landing prevented recovery.
The video below shows the first stage’s landing following the Falcon 9 launch in April 2015.
SpaceX will continue to attempt landings whenever the mission profile allows, and with a launch rate of once per month, we are confident that a first stage will soon land on a drone ship in the ocean, and not long after, on land.
Falcon 9 Reusable (Falcon 9R) Test Program
In 2014, SpaceX conducted testing of the F9R development test vehicle – an advanced prototype for the reusable Falcon 9. 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. These tests provided invaluable information for future flight testing.
Grasshopper Reusability Test Program
Prior to the F9R 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.