SpaceX has long touted reusability as the key to reducing launch costs, and eventually, making its way to the Red Planet. But so far, it has relaunched 11 of its workhorse Falcon 9 rockets, one time each. And it has taken at least several weeks to turn those around for the next launch.
On Friday afternoon, the Hawthorne space company will debut the latest and final substantial upgrade to the Falcon 9 — the so-called Block 5 version — which the company says will be capable of being used 10 times, with minimal refurbishment.
The upgraded rocket will launch Bangladesh’s first geostationary communications satellite Friday at 1:14 p.m. Pacific time from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The launch was originally scheduled for Thursday afternoon, but the Falcon 9’s computers initiated an abort with just 58 seconds left in the countdown.
SpaceX scrambled to determine the cause of the problem, but ultimately decided to scrub for the day. The company later tweeted that the issue was a “standard ground system abort” and that the rocket and satellite were in “good health.”
Next year, the company plans to relaunch a Block 5 rocket within 24 hours, said company Chief Executive Elon Musk.
“This rocket is really designed … to be the most reliable rocket ever built,” Musk said on a pre-launch call with reporters Thursday. “That is the design intent. And I think our customers, our most conservative customers, would agree.”
Some of those changes include adjustments to manufacturing practices. For example, the rocket’s metal engine support structure, known as the Octaweb, will now have a bolted design, rather than a welded one. That makes it easier and faster to produce, according to a Reddit question-and-answer session hosted by Andy Lambert, SpaceX’s vice president of production.
The Block 5 version of the rocket also includes upgraded electronics and guidance systems, and new and additional thermal protection technology to protect against fires in the engine and on the booster’s landing legs, Musk said during the Thursday call.
Those legs now also have a latch mechanism to allow for easy and repeated opening and closing. In the past, stowing the landing gear took several hours, he said.
The rocket’s grid fins, which help steer the first-stage back to Earth for landing, are now all made of titanium — a change from the company’s use of aluminum, which Musk said “got cooked pretty hard” in the past. The titanium grid fins require no refurbishment work between flights, he said.
The upgraded Falcon 9 represents that rocket’s final iteration, said Bill Ostrove, aerospace and defense analyst at Forecast International.
SpaceX intends to eventually phase out the Falcon 9 and the larger Falcon Heavy in favor of its next-generation rocket and spaceship system known as BFR, which will be developed at the Port of Los Angeles. BFR is key to SpaceX’s plans to colonize Mars and will be launched from the company’s south Texas launch site, Musk said Thursday.
Musk estimated that the Block 5 version of the rocket will fly about 300 times before the line is retired.
“In some ways, SpaceX is kind of following a software model in developing their launch vehicles,” Ostrove said. “You develop something, throw it out there, test it, learn from that, incorporate those lessons into the next model and keep doing that until you get to the final version.”
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told Space News in November that upgrades in the Block 5 version of Falcon 9 were driven largely by requests from NASA and the U.S. military, which will rely on the rocket to transport astronauts to the International Space Station and launch national security satellites, respectively.
The new version has greater lift capacity and its manufacturing process has been simplified, she said. On the Thursday call with reporters, Musk said both the efficiency and thrust of the rocket engine have increased. The company has also upped the fault tolerance of many of the rocket’s components in line with the higher safety standards of crewed spacecraft.
The Block 5 upgrade also should decrease turnaround time between launches, which is key to lowering costs.
SpaceX currently advertises Falcon 9 launches as starting at $62 million. An executive with Luxembourg satellite operator SES would not say last year how much the company paid for its launch on the first reused SpaceX booster, but did say it got a discount.
Musk said Thursday that a launch on a reused Falcon 9 rocket is now about $50 million. In the long-term, he said the marginal cost of a Falcon 9 launch could be as low as $5 million to $6 million. However, he cautioned that the company still has fixed costs. It would need to recover the development costs associated with the reusable rockets and needs to pay for development of BFR and its Starlink satellite constellation.
Decreased turnaround time is important for SpaceX’s future plans, including launches of its much larger Falcon Heavy rocket — which utilized two reused Falcon 9 first-stages in its maiden launch in February — and development of BFR.
Musk said Thursday that the previous version of the Falcon 9 could be refurbished in about 10 days if necessary, but that preparing it for upward of 10 uses would have required a “fair amount of work between each flight.” Block 5 is intended to reach 10 or more re-flights without scheduled maintenance — in essence, by simply moving the rocket from its landing spot, refueling it and then putting it back out on the launch pad.
“That’s really going to help them in their operations, reducing manufacturing costs,” Ostrove said.
This first Block 5 rocket, however, will go through “rigorous” testing and analysis and will not be re-flown for a couple of months, Musk said. He said he expected “substantial re-flight” of Block 5 rockets later this year, with some boosters flying three or four times.
“This is a ridiculously hard thing that’s taken us … 16 years of extreme effort and many, many iterations and thousands of small, but important changes,” Musk said of the short turnaround goal. “But we believe it can be done.”
3:45 p.m.: This article was updated with details of the launch scrub.
1:25 p.m.: This article was updated with details about the changes to the Block 5 Falcon 9 from a conference call with SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk.
This article was originally published at 11:30 a.m.