SpaceX on Thursday launched and landed a first-stage rocket booster that had previously flown — a milestone that could signal a new era of low-cost space transportation.
The successful launch of the commercial communications satellite on the recycled Falcon 9 rocket could lower launch costs as much as 30%, if SpaceX is able to make the procedure routine.
SpaceX employees at the company’s Hawthorne headquarters cheered and clapped as they watched the first-stage booster touch down on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean named Of Course I Still Love You.
Company Chief Executive Elon Musk said in a post-launch news conference that reuse of the first-stage booster would greatly reduce the cost of going to space.
“If we can achieve that, if SpaceX and others will also do the same, it means humanity can be a space-faring civilization,” he said. “This is what we want for the future.”
He joked that he took two boxes of Xanax before Thursday’s launch and felt “calmer than I should have been.”
Reusability is a crucial part of Musk’s larger goals. His plan to colonize Mars revolves around a reusable rocket system that could see spaceships being used 12 to 15 times.
Long before that, SpaceX plans to increase its satellite and cargo launch cadence, which analysts said would be aided by having reliable, reusable rocket boosters.
But that depends on turning around each first-stage booster relatively quickly and cheaply. The company will also have to determine how many times its boosters can be used without sacrificing reliability.
Musk said the boosters should be capable of at least 10 flights with no refurbishments. With “minor” changes, the boosters could be flown at least 100 times, he said.
The company’s goal is to have landed boosters ready for reflight within 24 hours — meaning the only change would be to refuel — Musk said. He said he was confident SpaceX could achieve the one-day turnaround next year.
“What this means is that if you can reuse this over and over again, the economies of scale are just going to be incredible,” said Marco Caceres, senior space analyst at Teal Group.
“You’ll be able to conceivably get the prices of these launch vehicles down to rates that nobody conceived of,” he said.
Musk said the company also successfully recovered the rocket’s fairing, a clam shell-like covering that protects satellites and other payloads. The fairing, which Musk said cost $6 million to make, has its own thruster control system, as well as a steerable parachute to guide it into the ocean, where it floats.
Analysts said the relaunches put pressure on competitors to adopt new technology and lower costs.
Currently, a Falcon 9 rocket launch costs about $62 million, according to SpaceX’s website — about 40% cheaper than a launch by one of its competitors.
During the webcast of Thursday’s launch, SpaceX certification engineer Kate Tice said the majority of launch costs stem from building a rocket; the cost of the rocket’s fuel is about $200,000 to $300,000.
Martin Halliwell, chief technology officer for SES, the Luxembourg-based company whose satellite was launched Thursday, would not disclose how much it paid for the flight, only saying the company received a discount.
SpaceX said the first-stage booster that flew Thursday went through an extensive evaluation process, including a thorough inspection of the entire booster and individual engine testing.
Once it landed after its first flight last April, the first-stage booster traveled via ground transport to Florida for refurbishment before heading to SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas, development facility for testing and then, finally, the launch site at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The final upgrade to the Falcon 9 rocket, which should fly later this year, will have improved thermal coating on the booster’s base heat shield and grid fins to improve reusability, lessons the company learned during its refurbishment process.
Since landing its first booster in December 2015, SpaceX has brought back eight additional first-stage rockets.
Musk said the company planned to fly as many as six reused boosters this year. That number will include two recycled first-stage rockets that will be used as the side boosters for SpaceX’s heavy-lift rocket, Falcon Heavy, which is set to fly for the first time in late summer.
The booster that flew Thursday, however, will be given as a gift to Cape Canaveral since it has “historic significance,” Musk said.
7:15 p.m.: This article has been updated to include comments from SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk.
4:45 p.m.: This article has been updated to include more details about the launch.
3:55 p.m.: This article has been updated to add that the launch and landing were successful.
This article was first published at 3:35 p.m.