Comments on the SpaceX First Stage Landing

If you haven’t seen the video footage yet of the SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage launch and landing yet, take a quick look.

Now for the commentary. First off, congrats to SpaceX for pulling off a challenging feat-landing a first stage, in one piece, on dry land. SpaceX’s video made me wonder where Carson Dailey was…they seem to run commentary of their launches like an MTV music video show complete with crowds of screaming people in the background.

Now comes the real challenge for SpaceX and eventually Blue Origin. Making the claims of cost savings and reusability a reality. For years many space advocates and NewSpace leaders have been pushing for reusable rockets as the way to reduce cost of access to space. It sounds great and one that would be awesome if it becomes reality. However, like many things in the space profession, just because this success has occurred does not mean that we have found the answers to our lift problems. Now SpaceX has to prove that they can reuse, in a timely and safe manner, the Falcon 9 first stage. That means maintenance of the airframe, the propellant lines and tanks and reusing the Merlin engines. If it turns out that SpaceX replaces all the engines between flights, that would not be a fully reusable first stage. If SpaceX can take this first stage, refurbish by making some repairs (and their will be repairs-hairline cracks in the turbo pumps, and other things we saw in other programs like the Space Shuttle, damage to the airframe due to G loading and landing stress) and turn it around for their next operational launch, then they deserve praise for another challenging endeavor.

However, it will be interesting to watch and see if their cost effectiveness stays the same as it has been in the past. Each Falcon rocket used up till now has been newly made. In many cases a new version each time one launches. Add the cost of people, parts and troubleshooting time to the mix and you have the possibility of cost per launch increasing, not decreasing. How SpaceX handles this and other issues that has plagued other attempts at reusable launch will be interesting to watch.

in addition, it will be interesting to watch how the U.S. Government, especially the US Air Force responds to this. Will they require a new booster each time SpaceX lofts a national security or Intelligence Community payload to ensure mission assurance? Will they trust a previously used first stage that may have incurred damages? And if there were damages that needed repairing, would the USAF accept a time delay in launch to accept some cost savings or would they go with an assured expendable launch from ULA over the danger of potentially weakened parts from a dynamic landing on land?

There is certainly a lot to be watching in the next several months in the operational, policy and strategic realms of how this first successful Falcon9 landing impacts the future of spaceflight for the United States. I am looking forward to seeing how the reality and challenges of spaceflight operations and policy answers my questions.

 

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