As SpaceX Proves Reflight Possible, Musk Reminds Us: The Ultimate Goal Is Reaching Mars

SpaceX achieved a pivotal goal on Thursday, March 30, 2017, with the first ever launch and landing of a previously recovered orbital class rocket. The rocket had carried cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) for the CRS-8 mission in April last year, while also becoming the first booster to successfully land on an ocean platform.

“I’m just incredibly proud of the SpaceX team for being able to achieve this incredible milestone in the history of space,” Musk said in a video message after the first stage landed once again on the seaborne drone ship named Of Course I Still Love You.

Fans gathered at Jetty Park to watch the world’s first re-launch of an orbital-class booster. Credit: Pauline Acalin

After 15 years of unyielding innovation, this historic re-flight of the Falcon 9 first stage booster is, without a doubt, a turning point in the company’s mission to radically reduce the cost of space travel and eventually land humans on the Red Planet.

“Now that reusability has been proven possible,” Musk stated during the post-launch press conference, “I hope people start looking at the real goal to which we should aspire, which is to establish a civilization on Mars.”

The rocket lifted off at the beginning of a 2.5-hour launch window at 6:27 pm (EDT) from Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Stage separation occurred 2 minutes and 43 seconds later and the 156-foot booster re-fired its engines and began its decent, landing vertically on drone ship, Of Course I Still Love You, marking the company’s ninth first stage booster recovery (of 13 attempts) since January 2015.

The second stage delivered the SES-10 communications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) approximately 32 minutes after launch. The satellite will bring additional high-powered capacity across Latin America from The Gulf of California in Mexico to Cape Horn in Chile.

Falcon 9 making history during its epic second launch on March 30. Credit: Pauline Acalin

“It’s an amazing day as a whole for the space industry. It means you can fly and refly an orbit class booster, which is the most expensive part of the rocket,” Musk said. He described the difference being akin to throwing away an airplane after one flight or reusing it multiple times. “Ultimately this is going to be a huge revolution in spaceflight.”

Martin Halliwell, SES Chief Technology Officer spoke about the relentless flack he received for deciding to utilize a flight-proven booster to which he explained, “You’ve got to decouple the emotion from the engineering, and the engineering team that Elon has working for him is really second to none. He asks very simple profound questions and he gets very good answers and, you know, the proof is in the pudding. Here we are. We did it.”

Musk now plans to immediately begin working on rapid reuse of a rocket. An hour after the launch, he tweeted that the company’s next goal will be re-flight of a booster within 24 hours. During the press conference, he added, “We might get there toward the end of this year, but if not this year I’m confident we’ll get there next year.”

Rapid reusability is the next critical piece of Musk’s long-term plan in making a self-sustaining civilization on Mars possible as this technology will later be applied to SpaceX’s ITS launch vehicle for the Interplanetary Transport System. During the press conference, Musk also addressed one of the more urgent technical challenges his team is working on, the grid fins. “The base heat shield and the grid fins,” he said. “If you saw on the webcast, the grid fins were lighting on fire.” The Falcon 9 grid fins are made of aluminum and coated in thermal protection, but SpaceX has already addressed this issue and designed an upgrade built for rapid reuse.

Credit: SpaceX/Mika McKinnon

“We actually have a new design for the grid fin which is quite a bit more advanced than the current one. It’s a special titanium alloy that is very good with high heat flux. The new grid fins should be capable of taking a scorching and be fine,” Musk stated. No word yet on when the current grid fins will be replaced.

When asked how the booster itself is doing, Musk replied, “I was looking at the telemetry all the way up and down, everything looked great. It looks really good. Just eyeballing it, I think the only things that would need to be addressed on this booster to re-fly it would be to replace the thermal protection on the grid fins and on the base heat shield and to repaint the areas of the rocket where the paint bubbled.”

In terms of things to look forward to later this year, Musk stated if all goes well there will be up to six re-flights using a flight-proven Falcon booster, two of them slated to be used in the demo flight of the Falcon Heavy aimed for later this summer.

The crowd at SpaceX headquarters bursts into cheer when the image of the vertical rocket appears onscreen after a delayed web feed during the landing. Credit: SpaceX

“I think that’ll be quite fun because the two side boosters will come back in synchronized aerial ballet and land back at the cape, and the center core will land downrange on the drone ship,” Musk said. The Falcon Heavy flight is currently scheduled for late summer.

It appears that there may also be a bold attempt at the upper stage booster recovery, as tweeted by Musk Friday morning, although he expects the odds of success will be low. Although the Falcon 9 was not originally intended to have a reusable upper stage engine, Musk thinks it may be worth a shot. “It might be fun to try a Hail Mary…what’s the worst that can happen…it blows up? It blows up anyway.”


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