SpaceX: reuse works

SpaceX sent its Falcon Heavy launcher into space last Tuesday for the first time since 2019 on the occasion of a mission for the US Space Force, the purpose of which has not been made public. The company then managed the last launch of its Falcon 9 last night, this time for Eutelsat. The opportunity to return to what has made the mark of SpaceX in the “new space”: the reuse of the first stage of its launchers.

That night, after the SpaceX rocket lifted off, the Falcon 9 first-stage booster – codenamed B1067 – re-landed no problem during its seventh use. What was an event in 2015 has become a normal process in SpaceX launches. Today, installing a first stage on land or at sea is almost routine and we are hardly even surprised anymore. to see two at once (in the case of Falcon Heavy).

In 2015, B1019 was the first booster to return to earth (safely) after launch, but it was ultimately not recycled for other missions. It now sits like a trophy near the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California. In April 2016, it was the first recovery at sea, on a barge 300 km off the coast of Florida.

In May of the same year, SpaceX recovered for the first time a first stage of a mission aimed at geostationary orbit. The barge was this time more than 600 km from Florida and the return was at higher speed, as explained by the Cité de l’Espace. During the final braking phase, three of the nine engines were restarted, instead of the usual one.

Since then, SpaceX has demonstrated that reuse was not only conceivable but that it entered into the normal process of the company’s launchers, allowing the lowering of launch costs. The company claims no less than 189 launches (including dozens for Starlink), with a high success rate. It has been several years since a failure tarnished the picture, the last was in 2016 with an explosion on the launch pad (the load was on board).

Six boosters reused at least ten times

This reuse has allowed SpaceX to perform 51 launches in 2022 so far, closing in on the 52 launches originally planned for the full year. Elon Musk announced last March to revise this number upwards to finally forecast 60. However, the year 2021 had counted “only” 31. Last December the Falcon 9 was at its 100th recovery of a first floor.

SpaceX quickly established itself as the recycling specialist; it must be said that the company is currently alone in this niche with commercial launches at this rate. If the B1017 has been used “only” seven times, others have many more flights on the clock. In May 2021, a first booster reached the number of ten uses.

But since then, six Falcon 9 first stage boosters have been reused at least ten times with a current record of fourteen launches for boosters B1058 and B1060! Elon Musk and SpaceX have already explained that the objective was to arrive at ten flights for a first floor without major renovation and a hundred times with ” moderate reconditioning »… without further details.

The speed of the restoration of these launchers by SpaceX is also becoming impressive. Last April, the company’s engineers needed only nine days for B1062, which was relaunched just 21 days after its previous mission. This possibility allows the company to make serial launches like last June when SpaceX launched three rockets in just 36 hours.

In total, the company claims to have made 152 first-stage landings and 125 flights with recycled rockets. SpaceX is taking advantage of this in particular to deploy the satellites of its Starlink constellation at a lower cost (via recycled launchers).

Discreet funding

If SpaceX shows without question that the recycling of launchers is a successful bet, the company is still struggling to communicate on the cost of it and it is still difficult to make an estimate.

In November 2019, a Senate report attempted to do so by explaining that, ” the new first stage costs approximately 18 million dollars, which represents approximately 40% of the total cost of a Falcon 9 launch. , the average cost of a first stage that would be used ten times would be $2.8 million, or a start-up cost of $29 million and therefore a savings of 34% “.

The company also benefits from nudges from the American public authorities by sometimes invoicing NASA and/or the US Air Force for missions a little less than 100 million dollars, which would cost 60 million to a private or foreign partner. . Ironically, in 2019, SpaceX itself complained about these kinds of practices used by Arianespace in Europe.

European recycling lagging behind

In Europe, precisely, recycling is not yet in sight. In 2016, Jerôme Vila from ArianeWorks barely mentioned reuse for the future of Ariane, but certainly not for Ariane 6. With the delay of this, European reuse projects are not yet on the firing line.

But Europe has not abandoned its Prometheus and Themis projects. The first, a reusable engine project for future European rockets, received around fifteen million euros in boost at the start of 2021 via the French recovery plan.

Themis, the reusable first stage European project was initially scheduled to take off for the first time between 2023 and 2025. Although no announcement has yet been made, the multiple delays of Ariane 6 do not leave optimistic for the projects supposed to take over.

Other projects focusing on reusability are also in the pipeline. We should also mention Susie from ArianeGroup, a reusable last stage for Ariane 64, and Space Rider, a European reusable space shuttle whose maiden flight is scheduled for 2024.

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