PARIS — Launch-service provider SpaceX has cut by more than half the time it takes to recover, refurbish and re-fly its Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage after just two campaigns and expects further substantial time savings as it gains more experience, a SpaceX official told insurance underwriters.
SpaceX has said its first reuse of a first stage, in a March mission to geostationary-transfer orbit for commercial fleet operator SES, took nearly a year.
The learning curve has since been steep. For the second flight with a reused first stage, the June 23 launch of Bulgariasat-1, also to GTO, SpaceX needed “only a couple of months” to perform the needed quality-assurance checks and perform the launch, said Jonathan Hofeller, SpaceX vice president for commercial sales.
Getting insurance underwriter buy-in for first-stage reuse is important for SpaceX. While today’s space-insurance market is awash with liquidity and historically low premiums, it’s unlikely the market will remain this way forever.
When premiums head up again, in the wake of a satellite or launch failure and a hefty claim, launchers that have earned the confidence of insurers will have more of an advantage over their competitors than they do today. SpaceX’s view is that a previously flown first stage ultimately should be viewed as a lower risk than a new stage.
Six months from flight to re-flight of Falcon 9 first stage
The June 23 Bulgariasat-1 flight used a first stage that had carried 10 Iridium Next satellites into low Earth orbit in January — six months from first flight to re-flight.
“The first refurbishment [for the SES mission in March] took the better part of a year to recover [the first stage], take it apart, look at it and fly it again,” Hofeller said June 15 during the World Space Risk Forum conference in London. “Bulgariasat took on the order of a couple of months as far as landing that rocket to flying.”
Insurance officials say that given the backing of SpaceX’s reusability policy by SES — the world’s biggest fleet operator, and one insurers cannot afford to snub — and the current market’s softness, SpaceX will meet little insurance resistance to proceeding with regular use of previously flown stages.
Hofeller sought to reassure underwriters that SpaceX makes an in-depth assessment of each previously flown stage before approving it for reuse.
“We go through each part, and there is a lifetime assessment for each part, and we look at it: Does this get replaced, does it get repaired, does it fly as is? And we add that up to determine the total lifetime of the rocket,” he said. “At the end of that assessment, if the rocket isn’t as good as a new rocket from a reliability standpoint, it doesn’t fly. It goes through the same sort of qual-assessment levels, acceptance levels, as it would for a new rocket.”
Rocket reusability and reliability: Mutually reinforcing?
SpaceX often uses a parallel with the commercial airline industry, where customers don’t ask about each plane’s flight history and, if they did, they might well prefer a plane with a flight record rather than a new aircraft.
“As we get more and more flight heritage, it is our vision that in the future people won’t want to be the first flight on a rocket,” Hofeller said. “We believe reliability is closely coupled with reusability and we aim to demonstrate that over the next couple of flights.”
It’s difficult to discern a trend from just two missions, but Hofeller said many SpaceX customers — “I won’t say a majority, but it may be a majority” — have expressed interest in converting their contracts to previously flown stages.
“We have done 34 missions to date and we have recovered 11 boosters, six at sea, five on land — and it’s getting to the point where it’s somewhat boring,” Hofeller said. The two recent missions have increased those figures to 36 missions and 13 booster recoveries.
After many years of promising high launch rates, 2017 was expected to be the year when SpaceX delivers:
The company has conducted nine missions in the first six months of 2017 and has a dozen more planned by the end of the year. The schedule includes the two first flights of the Falcon Heavy vehicle, which has been delayed for so long that its inaugural flight this year cannot be assumed. Nonetheless, the Falcon 9 schedule for 2017 should approach a 20-launch annual rhythm.
Can reusability business model work outside U.S. and China?
SpaceX’s main commercial competitor is Europe’s Arianespace, now a subsidiary of Ariane Group, which is prime contractor for today’s Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket and its successor, Ariane 6.
The European Space Agency (ESA) finances most Ariane rocket development and is clearly worried about developments in the global commercial market, where Arianespace generates the majority of its revenue.
It’s not just SpaceX. Blue Origin of the United States, India’s ISRO space agency, China’s Long March rocket series and modernization of Russia’s Proton vehicle are all coming onto the market with new capacity around 2020.
The problem for Europe is that up to now, every assessment of the business case for reusable rockets has concluded that it only makes sense when a high launch rate — more than 20 per year — can be sustained.
Given the vagaries of the commercial market, now in a downturn, only vehicles benefiting from an active and protected domestic government market can assemble a business model to sustain a reusable rocket. Today there are only two such markets: the United States and China.
ESA Director-General Jan Woerner, in remarks at the Paris Air Show — during which he and other Ariane government and industry officials were again peppered with “How can you just stand there and watch SpaceX move forward?” questions — said this:
“Reusability is sometimes more discussed than all other aspects,” Woerner said. “There is no simple answer to what is the best. Is it reusability of components? What type?
“You can compare it to the mass market in bottles: It is not clearly decided what is the best solution for bottles. You can have your personal opinion: returnable bottles, reused bottles, recycled or thrown away. There is no definite solution right now, but we have to look into it.”
ESA on June 21 signed a contract valued at about 80 million euros ($90 million) with Ariane Group to begin work on a reusable LOX/methane engine, called Prometheus, with a first ground test in 2020.