back to article What went up, Musk come down again: SpaceX to blast sat into orbit with used rocket

March is going to be a crunch month for SpaceX: it hopes to, for the first time ever, launch a commercial satellite into orbit using a previously used rocket. One of the Falcon 9 boosters Elon Musk's upstart has successfully blasted off and landed has been extensively refurbished for the mission. SpaceX's president Gwynne …

  1. Your alien overlord - fear me

    Well, if it fails, companies can always call UberSpace for a cheap deal :-)

  2. Vulch

    Next flight but one

    SpaceX has a Falcon 9 due to launch on Sunday, it's due for its static fire tonight after two postponements. Recycle the pad and SES-10 is up next. There's a ULA launch due, currently targetting the 14th, and if that slips again (should have launched last week) then it may affect the SES-10 launch.

    1. Dave Bell

      Re: Next flight but one

      The static fire took place a few hours ago.

  3. Paul 25
    Go

    Crunch time?

    "March is going to be a crunch month for SpaceX"

    Hopefully not...

  4. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Happy

    Don't call it "re-used"

    Think of it as "pre-loved"

    All joking aside this really is a step change in rocket re-use which has never been done before.

    It's taken 15 years to get her.

    Sadly it doesn't look like they will be able to manage to bring back the 2nd stage as well.

    1. The Man Who Fell To Earth
      Alert

      Re: Don't call it "re-used"

      Hmmm... "pre-owned" does not cut it either, as the previous launch customer only borrowed a ride.

      "Ubered" would only make sense if SpaceX screwed both launch crew & the customer, skimmed the cash flow & did fake ghost launches whenever they thought NASA was looking.

      "Second hand" sounds too low class, like someone's cast off.

      "Pre-tested" might work, as it sounds like a feature.

      "Pre-exersized" sounds kind of classy, so maybe they should call it that.

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: Don't call it "re-used"

        "Reused".

        You're overthinking this.

      2. Mike Richards

        Re: Don't call it "re-used"

        'Previously enjoyed' was how Mercedes used to sell used cars.

        1. AIBailey Silver badge

          Re: Don't call it "re-used"

          I vote for "pre-launched".

          1. David Nash Silver badge

            Re: Don't call it "re-used"

            "Already tested"

            1. MachDiamond Silver badge

              Re: Don't call it "re-used"

              "Didn't blow up last time"

        2. Anonymous Blowhard

          Re: Don't call it "re-used"

          "'Previously enjoyed' was how Mercedes used to sell used cars."

          I had a girlfriend like that...

      3. Bubba Von Braun

        Re: Don't call it "re-used"

        Just call it "Certified" part of its certification is a full flight test :-)

      4. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: Don't call it "re-used"

        "launch proven"

    2. Jon 37

      Re: Don't call it "re-used"

      "has never been done before"...

      ... except for the space shuttle boosters, and the shuttle itself. And Blue Origin, if you want to count suborbital hops.

      The question is: Will it actually be cheaper? The shuttle itself cost a fortune to refurbish between launches, which was one of the things that made the shuttle uneconomical. We won't know whether SpaceX can refurbish cheaply until there have been a few launches with reused rockets and we can see what they're charging. The refurbishment cost will also probably go down over time, as they learn what systems don't need refurbishing every launch.

      They said the first one that came back was going to get torn apart and examined and tested to destruction; one of the later ones has had a refurb, probably a fairly major one, and is about to fly again. Musk's stated goal is just to refuel them, time will tell if he can pull it off. I wish him all the best - it will be great if he can.

      1. Graham Dawson

        Re: Don't call it "re-used"

        The shuttle had unanticipated costs. The entire vehicle had to be refurbished, which included removing the engines and shipping them to a separate facility to be completely rebuilt.

        A great deal of the cost was in replacing the heatshield tiling, which was an extremely time consuming process. It had been originally planned that the shield would be made from generic tiles over most of its surface, but they ended up having to construct custom-shaped files for nearly the entire shield, which massively inflated the costs there as well.

        1. phuzz Silver badge

          Re: Don't call it "re-used"

          The Shuttle also had an additional mission, which was to provide enough pork/jobs to various different electoral districts around the US.

      2. jzl

        Re: Don't call it "re-used"

        Don't call it reused. Call it launch proven.

        1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
          Thumb Up

          "Don't call it reused. Call it launch proven."

          Yes, that strikes just the right tone of concerned, but tested.

          I think we have a winner.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Don't call it "re-used"

        "has never been done before... except for the space shuttle boosters, and the shuttle itself. And Blue Origin, if you want to count suborbital hops."

        Dont forget Thunderbird 3.

      4. Brangdon

        Re: has never been done before

        If you're counting Blue Origin's suborbital hops, then you should also count SpaceX's Grasshopper.

        Refurbishment costs should go down as Block 5 comes into play. Block 5 is supposed to incorporate lessons learned from studying the boosters they landed successfully. They are currently on Block 3 or 4, and they've said they won't bother reusing them many times.

      5. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: Don't call it "re-used"

        No, suborbital doesn't count - not that any of the mentioned units are suborbital. They're sounding rockets.

        Sounding rockets go straight up and straight down again, without being subjected to the kinds of stresses that going sideways at high speed result in (most notably: Atmospheric friction and being able to either return to base or to a downrange landing spot - neither of which are issues for sounding rockets)

        "The shuttle itself cost a fortune to refurbish between launches, which was one of the things that made the shuttle uneconomical."

        You're understating the costs by a long shot.

        Shuttle cost so much to refurbish that it would have been wildly cheaper to build new launchers each time, but it was only intended to be used for missions bringing heavy shit back down and was only designed to be economic for those missions.

        The SRBs would have been much cheaper to fabricate as right-sized expensables somewhere along the Gulf coast and barged to the cape, rather than being size-limited by railway tunnels from Utah, but that was a pork job and only one of many on the project.

        After the early cancellation of the US space station, it was a platform flailing about in search of a mission (the mission being ISS) and the airframe life was used up in flagwaving exercises keeping a manned mission alive, to the point where it ended up being wrecked before its useful mission was accomplished.

        As a result "we" no longer have any easy way of bringing big bits back down from LEO, which poses a serious problem when things like Hubble are large enough to come down substantially intact and uncontrollable. Skylab was bad enough. The ideal compromise solution would be applying a linear shaped charge to blow the tube open when it starts entering the atmosphere but I can't see that being acceptable either.

        1. MachDiamond Silver badge

          Re: Don't call it "re-used"

          The first stage of the Falcon 9 is sub-orbital. Past a certain point (~1km, maybe less) it doesn't matter how much higher a recoverable rocket goes. If it gets to terminal velocity on the way down, that's as fast as it's going to be going and that's what has to be slowed down and landed.

          1. Brangdon

            Re: The first stage of the Falcon 9 is sub-orbital.

            Actually even the first stage Falcon 9 is capable of getting to orbit on its own, albeit without a payload. It goes a lot faster than its terminal velocity. Blue Origin's New Shepherd is doing a much less difficult job generally. It is less close to performance limits and as a result can be made much heavier and so stronger. It's more comparable to SpaceX own Grasshopper rockets than Falcon 9. Grasshopper was reused multiple times, albeit only flying a few 100 metres up and down.

            Blue Origin's next rocket, New Glenn, will be interesting. It will be orbital. They say it will be a scaled up New Shepherd and everything they learned on one will transfer to the other. I'm not so sure. I think they'll find they are hitting new problems for the first time, problems that Falcon 9 has needed to solve.

    3. DropBear Silver badge
      Trollface

      Re: Don't call it "re-used"

      I think "pre-loved" in combination with the epitome of phallic symbols that a rocket is might be a bit risqué...

    4. Ol'Peculier

      Re: Don't call it "re-used"

      Sloppy seconds?

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
        Unhappy

        "Sloppy seconds?"

        Only if there's a stage leak.

        Which is usually the precursor to a lound bang.

    5. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: Don't call it "re-used"

      "All joking aside this really is a step change in rocket re-use which has never been done before."

      Whoops, Blue Origin reused New Sheppard 5 times. Masten Space Systems has been reusing their landers over 100 times. Armadillo Aerospace. Reasonable Rocket, NASA DCX…….. Elon isn't doing anything new, he's just the Walmart of rockets.

    6. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Don't call it "re-used"

      "Sadly it doesn't look like they will be able to manage to bring back the 2nd stage as well."

      Never say never, but the 2nd stage is going a _lot_ faster (and there's the small matter of having to catch it on the once-around or better)

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    First ? Erm ...

    "it hopes to, for the first time ever, launch a commercial satellite into orbit using a previously used rocket."

    Didn't the Space Shuttle used pre-loved rocket boosters, making this statement incorrect ?

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: First ? Erm ...

      Yep, but the shuttle boosters were solid fuel as opposed to liquid on the Space-X. Huge difference.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: First ? Erm ...

        I refer to - and quoted - the statement "it hopes to, for the first time ever, launch a commercial satellite into orbit using a previously used rocket."

      2. DougS Silver badge

        Re: First ? Erm ...

        Why does solid fuel versus liquid make it a "huge difference"?

        The main difference IMHO is that the shuttle boosters were parachuted back to Earth, while SpaceX is landing theirs in a controlled manner.

        1. Bubba Von Braun

          Re: First ? Erm ...

          Err simple a Shuttle SRB is a steel tube, dropped into the ocean by parachute.

          They hose it out replace the nozzle and refill the segments. Solid motors are simple and brutal, once started you don't stop them let alone restart and to land them.

          1. SkippyBing Silver badge

            Re: First ? Erm ...

            'Err simple a Shuttle SRB is a steel tube, dropped into the ocean by parachute.

            They hose it out replace the nozzle and refill the segments. Solid motors are simple and brutal, once started you don't stop them let alone restart and to land them.'

            I believe that was the original idea, however as someone decided the SRBs should be made in Utah it became slightly more complicated. Rather than being a single piece tube it had to be constructed from multiple sections that were shipped from Utah to Florida and then stacked on top of each other, with O-rings to seal the joints. There was no obvious way at the time to ship the boosters in one piece. Consequently to reuse them they had to un-stack them, clean them up, replace the O-rings (while wondering exactly what was going on to damage them like that), refill them with propellant, ship them back to Florida.

            I do kind of wonder what the saving was over just building new ones each time.

            1. lampbus

              Re: First ? Erm ...

              The Shuttle SRBs were quite complex fireworks...complete with dual redundant hydraulic power packs etc - to gymbal the nozzles. Lots of costly parts to reuse.

              Lots of details : https://spaceflight.nasa.gov/shuttle/reference/shutref/srb/

          2. far2much4me

            Re: First ? Erm ...

            Back in the 80's, I toured a machining facility that did a lot of work for NASA and JPL. One of their special contracts was re-machining the solid booster segments. After each launch and recover, the segments were broken down and cleaned. Then the top an bottom where the O-rings were fitted were re-machined to fit properly. Apparently the heat from the solid fuel caused enough warping to require this. If SpaceX can relaunch without having to replace/repair/refurbish half the components they are way ahead of where the shuttle was in reuse.

    2. AIBailey Silver badge

      Re: First ? Erm ...

      "it hopes to, for the first time ever, launch a commercial satellite into orbit using a previously used rocket."

      Didn't the Space Shuttle used pre-loved rocket boosters, making this statement incorrect ?

      The SRB's in the shuttle were essentially huuuuge fireworks with no control over throttling (other than the shape of the solid fuel - it had a star-shaped cross section, and was designed so that the surface area changed during the burn to adjust the amount of thrust produced), however a rocket engine has thousands of separate parts, and can control the thrust. Whilst SpaceX's rocket engines are in principle similar to the shuttle main engines (if you squint a bit), the shuttle was a very different beast to a rocket, and so the original statement is true.

  6. Mark 85 Silver badge

    I would have thought they'd try a test launch without a payload just to prove the engineering, but if they have the confidence... go for the real thing.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      We keep seeing stories like "$100 million satellite blown up on pad !"

      Okay, that would be what they spent to build that satellite.

      But how much does it really cost to rebuild an exact copy of a satellite you have already built once ?

      What is the real cost of the loss ?

      It's almost as if journalists don't give a pooh.

      1. frank ly

        Sensible people have two satellites made, at a large discount, with one kept in storage in case of accidents like this.

        1. John Robson Silver badge

          In case of accident and to have hardware available for debugging in twenty years time

      2. John Smith 19 Gold badge

        "But how much does it really cost to rebuild an exact copy of a satellite "

        That's actually a pretty good question.

        In production engineering the term "learning curve" actually means what's the cost to double production. In combat aircraft (in WWII where this stuff started to be studied) it was about a 15% reduction per doubling. With more aircraft made in large single pieces in more automated ways it's less effective. However satellites remain highly labor intensive.

        NASA had a classic case of this. IIRC the Voyagers were going to be a single probe but for various reasons they ended up building two. The second was significantly cheaper.

      3. MachDiamond Silver badge

        "But how much does it really cost to rebuild an exact copy of a satellite you have already built once ?

        What is the real cost of the loss ?"

        Most Satellites are hand built one-off pieces of machinery so making another isn't much cheaper than the first. They are also a very low quantity item so companies that build them charge all the market will bear.

        The real cost of losing a satellite is massive. The operating company was planning on using or leasing capability that suddenly evaporates and they will have to wait years more to loft another bird if the company can survive the loss. A competitor may get their satellite up ahead of the replacement and take a major portion of the business that the first company planned on. The first company may have contracts with penalty clauses with customers. Just getting the cost of the destroyed satellite back might not be enough.

        With 2 accidents in the last two years, insurance companies might have raised their rates to insure satellites on SpaceX rockets.

        1. bazza Silver badge

          @MachDiamond,

          Dunno why that attracted a down vote, all looked pretty reasonable to me. Must be some Musk groupies hanging around...

          Replacement cost can, depending on circumstances, vary a little. If it's the first of a series of identical satellites then it's not necessarily a linear increase in cost to build one more. It can cost more if it means bumping another customer from the production line! Or if the line's order book is looking thin a deal can no doubt be arranged. They are saving on the payload design costs, which is a pretty large part of the cost sometime. The time delay can be pretty bad; some of the major rad hard electronic components are quite often hand made, not the kind of thing kept in stock just in case.

          Similarly if the satellite is replacing an older one already in service then the loss of business can be small; the flight ops guys looking after the old one in orbit just start looking at the fuel gauges nervously. There's strategies they can employ; for a geo they can let the elevation position start drifting, saves a bit of position keeping fuel. It's only when they haven't the fuel to maintain azimuth do they start getting moaned at by the ITU and other operators and have to use what's remains to boost it to a parking orbit and switch it off. I think Eutelsat came close to having to do this with one of their birds after they failed twice to replace it.

          But if it's a brand new service then yes, the loss of business can be crippling expensive. That's what so upset SpaceX's launch customer last autumn.

          1. MachDiamond Silver badge

            @bazza, Yep. If the payload was one (or a fleet segment) of a constellation of identical satellites, building another copy isn't as big of a deal. They can snag one reserved for a future launch to fill in a hole. If an operator is putting up a replacement and the old copy has been on station for a decade, the new one is likely to be different. The old one in orbit might not have 2 more years left in it if that's the delay to get a replacement remade and launched.

      4. Alan Brown Silver badge

        "But how much does it really cost to rebuild an exact copy of a satellite you have already built once ?"

        It doesn't. You already have one, It's called the flight spare and you already paid for it.

    2. Alan Brown Silver badge

      "I would have thought they'd try a test launch without a payload just to prove the engineering"

      NOBODY does a test launch to orbit without a payload. You might give a free relaunch if it fails but the costs are too high to wear otherwise,

      Besides. You need the mass up top to prove the system.

  7. doug_bostrom

    Less than a year's slip is pretty respectable. We've all seen much worse for much less delivered, surely.

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      <cough>F35<cough>

  8. Tom 7 Silver badge

    This really is rocket science

    and we are going into places people have avoided for obvious reasons. I hope it works but its interesting times for SpaceX and it could take a few iterations before it starts to pay off.

  9. Queasy Rider

    it'll be a major kick in the nuts

    I read that as "it'll be a major kick in the Musks."

  10. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Unhappy

    But as always the real question is not how clever is it.

    It's how much does it lower the price to put 1 Kg in LEO.

    Because if it doesn't change that by much (IE 90%, not 10%) it will change little or nothing.

    Some say without a major cut in price per Kg Mars won't happen either.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: But as always the real question is not how clever is it.

      "Some say without a major cut in price per Kg Mars won't happen either."

      As I think has been mentioned further up, Musks end-game is to launch, land, refuel, launch. If that works out, something in the direction of a 90% saving or at least something north of 50% anyway, should be achievable.

  11. Tempest8008

    Collection of low cost cube-sats instead

    Doesn't it make more sense for SpaceX to try a launch with a previously used rocket and have a cheaper, more disposable payload?

    A bunch of school cubesats, for example.

    They eat the cost of the launch, but now you have PROOF that your PL (previously launched) rockets work, and you can start hauling in multiple requests at the lower price.

    You end up with quantity making up the money, and if something DOES go wrong your customer isn't out millions for a destroyed satellite.

    And in the meantime they get to look like the good guys, providing a free launch for academia.

    (I'm assuming the reason they didn't do this is due to an accountant somewhere)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Collection of low cost cube-sats instead

      I would agree, and like the idea of cubesats etc that are cheap enough to bring the technology within reach of far more research - except for the space debris issue ... Maybe each launch could also take a large Hoover, bring some junk back when it lands ;)

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: Collection of low cost cube-sats instead

        "Maybe each launch could also take a large Hoover, bring some junk back when it lands"

        [Not high enough, not fast enough] to be worth a damn - the first stage is in a ballistic trajectory (and not even an intercontinental one). Anything that's at the levels it reaches will be out of orbit in a matter of days anyway.

    2. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: Collection of low cost cube-sats instead

      Cubesats go up as a secondary payload where the primary payload is paying nearly all of the launch bill. 100 cubesats launched on a $50m rocket makes the launch cost $500,000ea. That's a tidy sum of money for a high school or college group to find funding for and 100 cubesats is a lot to flush out on one launch.

  12. Msitekkie

    Minimal Refurbishment - According to Elon

    I'm interested as to where that quote of "extensive refurbishment" came from. I believe Elon Musk said that minimal refurbishment was required, so has that changed? From what he has said in the past I believe Elon would regard that as a failure if true.

    Here's one relevant quote I found today:

    SpaceX engineers transported the flown rocket stage from its landing zone at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station a few miles north to the Falcon 9’s Complex 40 launch pad for a brief engine firing in January, less than a month after its Dec. 21 flight for Orbcomm.

    “Getting that stage back and taking a look at it, it was extraordinary how great it looked,” Shotwell said. “In fact, we didn’t refurbish it at all. We took a look at it and we inspected it (before moving it to the launch pad).”

  13. Phukov Andigh Bronze badge

    stoked to see this happen

    I for one will be watching this livestreamed hoping for success.

    Next to petition Musk to dress up a booster Flash Gordon style.

    1. Alistair Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: stoked to see this happen

      wait... what?

      I read that as dress up a flasher in Gordon style.

      *shudder*

      <only appropriate icon, temporary mind bleach>

    2. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: stoked to see this happen

      The fist Space Shuttle external tank was painted white, but the mass of the paint was significant which is why subsequent launches had ETs with just a protective primer coat. Every gram counts in the rocket business.

  14. A K Stiles

    Launch delayed...

    The Echostar 23 launch scrubbed 05:34UTC due to wind speed - hopefully Thursday launch window now...

    1. A K Stiles
      Pint

      Re: Launch delayed...

      And now successful. Still amazed by the fact we can do stuff like this, and get the pictures of it effectively in real-time. Beers or whatever their preferences are all round. I'll even let them off for the presenter's "super-awesome" description of launching a first stage the old fashioned way, sans-recovery.

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