That's a direct dress rehearsal for the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ITS_launch_vehicle plan, where it takes off and returns directly to its pad, where it's refueled and 2nd stage loaded on top, for immediate turnaround.
We're living in the fuckin' future.
But I guess other vehicles like cars and trucks are in that category (they don't typically receive an in-depth safety inspection before and after each trip), so maybe rockets can get there too...
I say that to say this; I would hope they are just really fast at inspections. There is a real reason to get them right. Failures happen, even to super analog tech.
This is not without precedent; a Falcon 9 core previously had a failure of an engine in flight, and the vehicle recalculated the burn time on the fly to continue on with the primary mission.
I'm not an aerospace engineer, but if one wants to comment, I'd be happy to be corrected. It already requires ideal conditions for stages to separate successfully.
It would be similar to a a fully loaded semi truck trying to turn on a dime.
1. Drastically less capex for the same traffic volume. If you have enough business to be launching once a week and it takes you on average six months to get a rocket turned around, you need at least 25 rockets (probably closer to 35 to smooth out the peaks). If it takes you on average a day to get a rocket ready, then you only really need two (one and a backup).
2. Beyond being useful on its own, immediate turnaround means that you don't have to do much between launches, which means that you've cut down drastically on opex. It's not just that you can get a rocket ready in a day, it's that you can get a rocket ready with less than a day's worth of work.
3. Agility means that you might be able to take opportunities that might otherwise be unavailable due to short notice. Your probe only has an hour launch window every couple of years, and it's delayed so that it won't be ready until 2 months before? With other launch systems, you might have to cancel due to uncertainty. With SpaceX, no problem - as long as nobody else is scheduled for that day, you can always jump in if your probe is ready.
It is very inspiring to see a man with a dream reach this far, despite being ridiculed for years. It wasn't supposed to be possible, but he did it anyway. From now on one can always point to Elon Musk if somebody tries to put you down and say something can't be done.
Of course most are not anywhere near the talent and focus of Elon Musk, but it proves what people often seem to discount that startups can make a dent and challenge the big established players.
I see the same when people discuss Tesla. People are very quick to write off Tesla believing it is only a matter of time before Diamler Benz, Audi, Toyota, etc knock them down with a superior electric alternative.
Personally I think we will see in both space launch and the car industry an iPhone moment, where long time established players eventually get destroyed or made irrelevant.
It has nothing to do with difference in talent, but when you work in an established company you know very well how slow it can be for a company to change their ways in fundamental ways. The change in priorities, strategy and mindset will come too late for many of the players.
Long-term, Falcon9 exists to fund Spacex' R&D for Mars. Until now, Musk has said <5% of Spacex budget goes to ITS dev. I expect that to change now.
1st stage costs $40m, targeting 10 flights = $4m/flight, amortised. Add another 2-3 million for refurbishment, storage, etc., and reusing the 1st stages should save Spacex ~$33m.
Shotwell, however, has stated that customers will receive up to 30% discount. On a $62m flight, that's a savings of <$19m ...
giving Spacex an extra $12-15m pure profit on every flight ... which I hope/expect to get channeled into ITS dev.
Spacex is already the cheapest in the industry, and they now have a 3-5 year head-start in reusability, they simply don't need to lower their prices more.
We know the price of a Falcon 9 launch is about $65 million, and we know that the hardware cost of the first stage is about 3/4 of the total hardware cost. Assuming everything has the same profit margin markup that puts the effective price of the first stage at $49 million. They've said they think they can do 10 launches per booster core, if so that puts the amortized price at only $4.9 million per flight. Add the $16 million for the 2nd stage and that gives you a ballpark figure of $21 million per flight with the same profit percentages they have today. Add a few million dollars per flight for operational overhead and the cost of other components and you're probably not far off a reasonable estimate for what they could offer, let's call it $25 million just to be safe. At 22,800 kg to LEO, that's $1000 per kg ($500/lb). How much lower that could go depends on how much profit margin SpaceX would want to shave off and how much overhead they have for reuse.
In comparison, the industry standard Ariane 5 can do roughly $8k per kg to LEO, the Atlas V is similar, the Proton is about $4k/kg.
Second, the second stage needs to go into orbit before it can return. That's much more speed and a harder reentry.
Third, you have to deal with thrust. Falcon 9 has 9 engines, which means the landing burn can uses 1 engine for 1/9 of the thrust. This is still too much power and F9 currently needs to do a suicide burn. You can't do that with only one engine on a stage that is 1/10 lighter than the first one.
Fourth, second stage has a vacuum engine with a nozzle not fit for atmospheric use. It's so thin and flexible it would probably crumble or disintegrate upon entry.
Consider the worst case scenario here. You have a launch to GTO where the upper stage goes out to geostationary orbit altitude over the course of several hours before returning to LEO. The stage needs to be able to have enough power generation to live that long (currently it doesn't), which probably means solar panels or bigger batteries. The re-entry burn will take a little propellant, which isn't a big deal but does reduce payload capacity again. The re-entry will require new avionics and thermal protection systems. Then landing will require new control systems to steer toward the landing site plus new engines and possibly new propellant storage for the landing. At this point the main engine can't be used because it not only has the wrong thrust, it won't even work at low altitude.
But that's not the worst part. The worst part here is that being in orbit the stage is now "floating" free from the Earth's surface, which means that it now has landing windows in the same way that there are launch windows into orbit. For a high altitude orbit like a geostationary transfer trajectory this is very problematic because you have to wait for things to line up, but you only get roughly two chances a day so you might be waiting a long time. Lowering the apogee would help (you'd probably be able to achieve a landing within a day) but that's costly in terms of propulsion.
The obvious easy way out of that mess is to move the problem boundaries by going to 3 stages. The 2nd stage would only push to LEO and re-enter after a once around roughly an hour and a half after launch. The 3rd stage could be fairly small with a modest propulsion system, it only has to boost payloads from LEO to GTO etc. so it could be fairly low cost and easy to develop. Plus, it wouldn't be used at all on LEO missions.
But that still leaves all the rest. Most likely they add draco/superdraco thrusters to the 2nd stage along with landing legs and thermal protection systems. The thrusters alone might be enough to provide attitude control authority through re-entry and landing. Adding all that mass and complexity will increase the cost of the 2nd stage, while, for the most part, lowering the payload.
But on the plus side, even with significant increases in stage cost and mass they should be able to bring the per flight amortized hardware costs due to the 2nd stage down from over $10 million to under $2 million.
With first stage reuse alone they should be able to lower their costs by up to a factor of 3 or so, with second stage reuse they should be able to lower that by a further factor of 2 or more, making it possible to provide launches for under $10 million.
At this point, the other commercial orbital lift companies are basically cooked, it's a matter of time. Blue Origin could be an interesting player, but who knows.
The question is this: can he drive even more demand by lowering the price somewhat? That's an interesting question, and one I'm sure being discussed at SpaceX.
You're speaking of what they charge.
I'm curious (and fwiw I'm not the OP, so I have no idea if they were asking this... :) what it costs.
Put another way, I wonder what this does to their margins?
... like building a LEO constellation of 11,943 satellites.
The upper limit comes from the fact that they are currently only reusing the first stage, and that the first stage core is ~75% of the cost of a launch.
So, if they can use a core n times, they get a % discount:
This development is great. So much fun to watch.
This one probably isn't reusable since it landed in the water. Their next goal is to make a floating "bouncy castle" to land it on.
Can't wait to learn what name they'll pick for it.
Re-usable rockets should increase their capacity...
This will slow the earth's rotation slightly. Future generations will rue our profligate wastage of earth's angular momentum.
There's an energy benefit for some launches at lower latitudes, but that's separate from being near an ocean:
When SpaceX has effective competition that can deploy a single ticket multiple times, prices will drop dramatically.
In any case, considering the four-month refurbishment the reflown core may actually have ended up more expensive than a new one. That's okay for now. SpaceX offered a discount to get a customer to fly on it instead of having to pay the launch cost completely on their own. Currently I wouldn't say the discount is any indication about how much cheaper reflying a core currently is. But with the first stage being about ¾ of the launch cost there are of course great potential savings, which is where the 30 % come in.
Or maybe making it cheaper to fly will increase demand enough that it makes sense to lower prices to meet it
Don't you mean $1m?
but actually plenty of normal would want a potentially deadly ride into space wouldn't they.
My intuition leans toward no, obviously because launches are very expensive in terms of fuel and other stages, but also because there's no guarantee the test rocket would be representative, so for it to be really meaningful they would have to repeat the experiment several times. Still doesn't seem inconceivable though.
How ever, for the future, only time will tell how confident they will be able to be in the re-usability of their rockets. Most likely they will retire this rocket, as with the one that was first landed, and put it on display somewhere. After they research it, of course.
You are correct, they are retiring this rocket. In fact, SpaceX is giving a piece of the rocket to SES to hang in their conference room.
Did they say why they're retiring this stage? A commenter at Ars said they spent a lot of time bringing it up to the latest rev. Seems like a shame not to fly it again.
They most likely spent the time bringing it up to the latest rev because of the performance improvements and increased reliability of the newer version. They didn't really care about how much time it took to get the second one to fly, as long as they could get it done. This was a really big milestone for their future plans, so it didn't really have a monetary or time limit.
Once they get this generation of rockets settled into a pattern of high reliability reuse they'll look toward future improvements which will involve switching fuels (from kerosene to methane). LOX/Methane doesn't have the same coking problem so it could enable rockets with much longer lifetimes (a hundred or more flights per stage) and corresponding cost reductions.
Also, at that point the development cycle fundamentally changes because then you can match the airplane cycle where you build a few prototypes or test vehicles and then put them through their paces. Since you expect the vehicles to survive all the time (versus being lost routinely) you can achieve much lower development costs along with much higher reliability.
edit: damn I could imagine something like a long assembly line, one building is a massive x-ray machine, rocket slides into it like a sub-sandwich going into a Quizno's oven, parts get pulled out, replaced with robotic arms, refueled, payload attached, stands up, boom back into space! haha
Nor has Falcon 9. It would be more correct to say that no Blue Origin rocket has been to very high energies though, much less returned from them.
Falcon is in a totally different class of difficulty and complexity. I mean, the grid fins caught on fire and began to melt. That gives you a good idea of what sort of forces are involved in the descent.