The First Falcon Reflight

It may happen this month. Eric Berger has the story. But this seems just wrong for the 21st century:

it can occur no earlier than March 29, because the launch of an Atlas V rocket has slipped to March 27, and it requires about 48 hours for the Air Force to reconfigure its downrange tracking system for a launch from a different pad.

There was a panel at the satellite conference a couple weeks ago on the need not to just rethink the range, but get rid of the concept entirely, as it becomes more like an airport. Like “human rating,” a “range” is an archaic concept from the early days of launching things into space on ordnance.

[Update a while later]

More thoughts from Chris Petty:

If the SES-10 launch proceeds without problems many of the doubters may be silenced and SpaceX could truly be on the brink of a real revolution in spaceflight – a tipping point at which expendable rockets become the exception for a launch company rather than the rule as they have been since the dawn of the space age in 1957. But can reusability really work? It has become something of a fashionable mantra from some within NASA to state that the Shuttle proved reusable vehicles couldn’t be economically competitive with expendable launchers. Whilst this was certainly the case for the hugely expensive shuttle, this single example shouldn’t be taken as a rule that can be broadly applied to reusable vehicles per-se. There were many factors inherent within the shuttle’s design that conspired to mean that the planned high flight rates could never be attained, nor could the aspiration of ‘aircraft-like operations’ with highly automated check-out procedures and rapid turnarounds between flights ever be achieved. Many of these had their roots in the restricted post-apollo budgets from which the compromised design for the Space Transportation System emerged.

With the Falcon 9, SpaceX has been able to iteratively design a launch system that could gradually test elements of reusability while still carrying out the all important revenue generating work of delivering payloads to orbit. Unlike the shuttle, failure during recovery was an option for the Falcon 9 during its development. This points to one of the key differentiators that SpaceX and fellow reusable commercial launch company Blue Origin, have on their side. With founders coming from the technology startup culture, both firms have concepts of lean, agile development ingrained into their corporate DNA. Functioning as space launch OEMs, they have developed their own vehicles and propulsion technologies from scratch. The risk in these new developments has been met partly by the significant financial resources of their founders, but also by clients willing to chance their fortunes with less-proven technology in return for reduced launch costs. While some still refer to SpaceX and Blue Origin as ‘New Space’ both are now well into their second decade of operation, so perhaps it is more appropriate to refer to Commercial Space as compared to the more established Government Space represented by NASA, where the cost-plus contract is still king and development takes place at a far slower pace, insulated to a large extent from market forces.

And at some point, as he notes, SLS will become so obviously ridiculous that it won’t survive.

[Update a few minutes later]

Sorry, solved the missing link.

[Update a few minutes later]

19 thoughts on “The First Falcon Reflight”

  1. It seems almost unavoidable that if SpaceX are able to fly Falcon Heavy within 2017 and Blue Origin’s New Glenn and ULA’s Vulcan, both offering economies via reusability, are relatively close behind then the future will look far from certain for NASA’s heavy lift behemoth, the SLS. Hugely expensive, eschewing any attempt at reusability and with an extremely low projected flight rate, it’s hard to see how SLS can compete in any meaningful way with the commercial launch vehicles.

    Never heard of this guy before (Chris Petty). I like the cut of his jib.

    1. In general, I do too. On most matters addressed, he seems to have his act pretty well together. But he still, unfortunately, buys into the “thin margins/skating on the edge of disaster” narrative about SpaceX’s allegedly parlous finances. I left a largish comment over there on the subject.

  2. “…48 hours for the Air Force to reconfigure its downrange tracking system …”
    What kind of crippled system are they running that can’t handle launches from different pads in quick succession? Something designed in the 1960s?

      1. So something else they could do with budget freed by canceling SLS, build a modern capable launch tracking system. And if the existing system is that old, probably reduce maintenance costs by a large margin in the process.

        1. The Eastern and Western Test Ranges belong to, are funded, and operated by the Air Force, not NASA.

  3. The Air Force has been complaining about the state of the Eastern and Western ranges for well over 10 years. The problems are that the ranges are old, the equipment is hard to maintain and labor intensive, and that the funding went to other priorities (e.g. overruns on SBIRS).

    Recently, SpaceX launched a Falcon with a fully automatic flight termination system. This is the future of the ranges in that it puts the flight termination decision on the rocket (based on GPS data) instead of being reliant on old, archaic radars. With this kind of technology, the Air Force hope to support over 30 launches this year and eventually support up to 48 launches a year. By way of reference, in 2008, there was only 7 launches from the Cape.

    1. But in the late 50s and early 60s they were achieving over 100 launches per year. Granted, most of them were suborbital, but I don’t see where that would matter from a range safety perspective. What was different back then?

      At any rate, it’s great to see the flight rate increasing from the recent anemic numbers. Today’s rockets and satellites are both more capable and more reliable than their counterparts in the old days.

      1. Most of those early vehicles needed ground guidance and would have had their own facilities.

        The range also had a lot more money back then, and was entirely an Air Force operation, and was somewhat of a national priority. All of which gets stuff done faster.

      2. The range was a lot bigger back then. Many of the systems used back in the 1950s and 1960s were retired long ago. Given that there were only 7 launches out of the Cape in 2008, it isn’t hard to understand why. Add to that was the introduction of TDRSS back in the early 1980s which meant they didn’t need nearly as many ground stations.

  4. “It has become something of a fashionable mantra from some within NASA to state that the Shuttle proved reusable vehicles couldn’t be economically competitive with expendable launchers.”

    Hmm. I’ve also heard it said “NASA conclusively proved that NASA couldn’t do it.” This refers to reusability for the Shuttle, and for any number of other NASA giant programs, such as the X-33.

    Fly a little, test a little is kind of a cliche, but has proven quite true for SpaceX and Blue Origin, as pointed out in the article.

    1. As some of us have said before, the shuttle failed in bringing down costs because it wasn’t really all that reusable.

      1. The shuttle would have cost a lot more if you’d had to replace a $2,000,000,000 orbiter after every flight.

        As I understand it, the variable cost of a shuttle flight wasn’t that bad. It was the fixed costs spread over a small number of launches that made it crazy expensive compared to the competition.

        1. Actually, in later years, the large lightweight expendable tank was a substantial part of the cost of Shuttle launches. Other issues included refilling the in-orbit engines with toxic hypergolic fuel and Shuttle tile maintenance (althought that decreased quite substantially as time went by, due to more use of blankets instead of tiles in certain areas). The SSME engine costs were relatively cheap and their per flight cost was still decreasing. I think of the Shuttle as a prototype. If the concept had more iterations it is quite likely the cost would have gone down eventually. I think we will see single stage or stage and a half concepts with large LOX/LH2 engines eventually come back but VTVL is clearly superior to VTHL in terms of payload delivered right now.

        2. The Shuttle system was pretty inefficient. In order to launch a payload of about 50,000 pounds into LEO, you also had to launch an orbiter that weighed about 200,000 pounds. By way of comparison, SpaceX says their Falcon 9 can also deliver 50,000 pounds to LEO. Without the orbiter, the Shuttle system could’ve been much smaller and less expensive. The Shuttle was the only system that required humans on board in order to launch satellites.

          Now, admittedly the Shuttle could do more than simply carry stuff into orbit. For example, it not only carried ISS modules into space but delivered them to the destination. Russian modules launched on Proton boosters had to be able to rendezvous and dock with their destination. That means they had to have propulsion, command & control, electric, and other systems that a module carried on the Shuttle didn’t need.

  5. Would this same system be used to track launches from Texas?

    From a commercial and national defense POV, it is unacceptable that the current system can’t handle rapid launches.

    1. SpaceX has developed and proven an automatic flight termination system. I’m sure they’ll use this for most if not all of their launches from now on, including those from Texas. This reduces their dependence on the Eastern Test Range significantly.

  6. I hope this system gets upgraded as the flight tempo improves and more companies, like Blue Origin, start using the Cape.

    Another reason why SpaceX should continue with their investment in the Texas launch site at Boca Chica.

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