The May 6 SpaceX JCSAT-14 mission that silenced the critics. First they said SpaceX couldn’t land a rocketship. So SpaceX did it. Then they said SpaceX couldn’t land a rocketship on a boat. So SpaceX did that, too. Finally, cynics accused SpaceX of making that last landing too easy on itself. “Its rocket didn’t go far enough,” they accused. It didn’t reenter hot enough, or fast enough. Let’s see SpaceX try landing a rocket after launching to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), and not just low Earth orbit (LEO) — it won’t survive the attempt!
Well, surprise, surprise—last week, SpaceX did that too. After launching a Japanese communications satellite into GTO roughly 22,300 miles above Earth, SpaceX landed its Falcon 9 launch vehicle aboard a drone barge in the mid-Atlantic last Friday. This is something that no one else has ever done—not Boeing (NYSE:BA) nor Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), the twin titans of United Launch Alliance. Not Arianespace. Not even Blue Origin has accomplished such a feat.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9: On a boat. After launching a satellite into
orbit 22,000 miles high. (Hint: It survived.) Image source:SpaceX.
In fact, SpaceX has now successfully relanded three of its last five rockets launched, including those carrying:
The Orbcomm mission, launched to LEO and landed at spaceport on Dec. 21, 2015
Jason-3, launched to LEO and failed landing at sea on Jan. 17, 2016
SES-9, launched to geostationary orbit (GEO, which is similar to GTO in altitude) and failed landing at sea on March 4, 2016
CRS-8, launched to resupply the ISS in LEO and landed at sea on April 8, 2016
JCSAT-14, launched to GTO and landed at sea on May 6, 2016.
And yet, SpaceX’s critics have been right about one thing all along: Space is hard.
It took SpaceX two failed attempts before it finally stuck a landing on solid ground. It took the pioneering space exploration company two more failures before Falcon 9 would land safely on a boat at sea.
Turns out, the one thing everyone was wrong about was that landing a rocket after a GTO mission (delivering a satellite to 22,000-26,000 miles distant) would be appreciably harder for SpaceX than landing after an LEO mission (LEO is anything under 1,200 miles above Earth’s surface).
Yes, the speeds involved were higher, with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket rising higher and therefore falling farther down Earth’s gravity well before landing. Yes, the temperature of reentry was higher. (Check out the discoloration on that rocket up above. It was white when it started its trip….) But SpaceX still did it.
The question now is: What will SpaceX do next?
What comes next
The easy answer to this question is: Thaicom 8.
On May 26, SpaceX is scheduled to fly a Falcon 9 rocket out of its Space Launch Complex 40 installation at Cape Canaveral, carrying the Thai communications satellite into geosynchronous orbit (GSO) roughly 23,000 miles above Earth. After that, SpaceX has three launches scheduled to take place in June, two flying out of Cape Canaveral and one leaving from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
SpaceX may or may not choose to relaunch the same Falcon 9 that landed at sea on April 8 for one of these missions—or for another mission yet to be announced. Elon Musk has said he’s “aiming for relaunch around May or June,” depending on whether SpaceX can find a customer willing to take a ride on a used rocket.
What comes after next
It’s after SpaceX finds that guinea pig, though, that things really get interesting. According to the company’s chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX plans to cut its usual advertised price for a space launch by about 30% when reusing a rocket. That should shave $20 million off the company’s usual launch price of roughly $60 million.
At $40 million a rocket ride, it’s going to be very difficult for any other space launch company to compete with SpaceX. Currently, Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s space launches cost $125 million and up. Arianespace has a plan in place to launch satellites two at a time aboard its new Ariane 64 rocket (once it’s built), for an average launch cost of $63 million—but even this won’t compete with a $40 million price, if SpaceX is able to offer that consistently.
The key, though, is consistency. SpaceX has launched and landed three rockets—and deserves all possible kudos for that. But can it re-launch and re-land a rocket? Can it rere-launch it and rere-land it? Because if it can, SpaceX will be able to underprice all comers, and change the economics of space exploration forever.
And in as little as a month and a half—or less!—we’ll know the answer.
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Up it goes and down it goes. But investors want to know: Can a SpaceX rocket yo-yo–can it go up-down-up? Image source:SpaceX.
Rich Smith does not own shares of, nor is he short, any company named above. You can find him on Motley Fool CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he’s currently ranked No. 291 out of more than 75,000 rated members.
In a quest to regain momentum after a serious launch pad explosion, SpaceX will launch a Space Station Resupply Mission, CRS-10, from one of NASA’s most historic launch pads at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Having signed a 20-year lease to use LC-39A, used by Apollo 11 in July 1969 going to walk on the Moon, SpaceX has been modifying the pad to accommodate the Falcon 9 rockets. Liftoff is set for February 18 at 10:00 am EST.
Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, posted a picture of the vertical Falcon 9 rocket, topped with the Dragon Spacecraft, on Instagram as the countdown has begun following a hot rocket test on the pad. The space game is ramping up worldwide with China planning lunar missions based on the Soviet model of creating their own orbiting space station that will serve as a way-port for large freight style craft bound for the lunar surface. This approach, viewed by Behind the Black’s Robert Zimmerman as “smart,” signals a step-by-step Chinese plan to establish a lunar base for their permanent tenancy. India’s program is progressing from a satellite launch provider into other areas and Great Britain has established a quasi-space agency in hopeful anticipation of independent operations.
SpaceX Falcon 9 Pad 39A Static Test Fire CRS 10 - YouTube
Based in Hawthorne, California, SpaceX’s pad modifications are described by Robert Z. Pearlman of Space.com, “They made structural improvements to the fixed service tower that supported the space shuttle, added new propellant, data and power lines, modified the flame trench and installed new “rainbirds” to deluge the pad with water to combat acoustic damage at liftoff. SpaceX also erected a horizontal integration hangar at the base of the pad to process its rockets and designed a new transporter erector launcher (TEL) to move the boosters to the launch platform and stand them vertical for flight.
“Plans are also in place to remove the shuttle-era rotating service structure, though it was not necessary to complete prior to beginning use of the pad. The company accelerated its preparation of Pad 39A after a Falcon 9 exploded in September 2016 in the lead up to a static fire at the nearby Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. That pad, now out of service, is currently being repaired with work expected to be complete later this spring, at earliest.”
For the Trump Administration the key is to get the most for the public’s money, something NASA and their historic contractors have unable to accomplish while innovators like SpaceX, Orbital ATK, SpaceFlight and others add vital elements to the equation with an eye towards faster implantation and cost-cutting. SpaceX’s reusable first stage rockets changed the equations and forced Boeing and Lockheed Martin, partners in the United Launch Alliance, to take a closer look at their own operations as the United States Congress, and the President, will demand the same service from them.
For sure the positions of Lockheed Martin and Boeing within the defense establishment are solid, but it appears business as usual will not fly anymore, so to speak. Exploration of deep space with probes is a constant fascination for even casual observers and it should get more exciting in the coming years.