SpaceX’s reusability effort faces one more big challenge
March 31, 2017
PARIS — SpaceX’s Elon Musk on March 30 outlined how his company expects to leverage its latest operational success in reusing a Falcon 9 first stage — and for a commercial payload to geostationary-transfer orbit to boot — into much lower launch costs.
Addressing the issue with perhaps more realism than ever before in public — SpaceX has learned in the past two years how humbling the launch-service business can be — Musk said the company needed to recover about $1 billion or more in sunk research and development costs over the years spent on reusability and cannot give customers 100 percent of the savings generated with first-stage reuse.
The March 30 launch, of the 5,281.7-kilogram SES-10 commercial telecommunications satellite, was an unqualified success. The SES-10 satellite was placed into the correct orbit and signaled its health even earlier than expected after rocket separation, SES Chief Technical Officer Martin Halliwell said in a post-launch briefing with Musk.
The Falcon 9 first stage, previously flown on a low-Earth-orbit mission to the International Space Station, returned to a high-accuracy landing on an autonomous drone ship offshore Kennedy Space Center, Florida.
And in what Musk called “the cherry on the cake,” at least one of the two fairing halves was recovered for possible reuse. Musk said each fairing costs about $6 million and that their regular recovery and reuse would add to the business case for reusability.
If 75% of the cost drops by 90 percent…
What is that business case? Over the years, Musk has used several figures to defend the economics of a reusable first stage. On March 30, he said the first stage accounts for about 70 percent of the Falcon 9 rocket’s total cost. Add in the fairing and it’s around 75 percent of the cost that could drop substantially by virtue of reuse.
Musk said a first stage could be flown 10 times with almost no refurbishment, and 100 times with a refurbishment level that would still be below the threshold beyond with reuse makes no economic sense.
The stresses of atmospheric reentry, especially on high-energy missions such as geostationary transfer orbit, make the first stage’s base heat shield and its grid fins, which guide it back to the landing point, the most susceptible to damage from the extreme heat, he said.
Musk said design improvements for both were in the works. The aluminum fins, despite being covered in thermal protection, tend to catch fire during landing and will be replaced by a titanium alloy.
Musk said switching to the new design would lead to perhaps the world’s largest largest titanium forge station. Titanium is substantially more expensive than aluminum but presumably that is not a concern as the titanium fins can stay mission-capable over more launch-and-return cycles.
Musk said the Falcon 9 first stage’s paint also tends to buckle on reentry, and that the company was looking at a thermal coating to replace the paint.
For SES, an appetite for more reused stages — this year
Halliwell said SES, a large commercial fleet operator that launches three or four times per year just to maintain its current 50-plus fleet of satellites, is now considering whether to purchase flight-proven vehicles for two of the three other launches it has planned with SpaceX this year.
SES purchased the SES-10 launch as part of a four-mission contract and only later agreed to use a refurbished stage for one of the four — the SES-10. Halliwell said before the launch that the company’s insurance premium rose far less than 1 percent because of the switch.
Halliwell did not specify whether the 1 percent figure was attached only to the SES-10 launch’s insurance or relative to the four-launch insurance package.
Industry observers and even SpaceX’s competitors have long assumed that the company would land, recover and relaunch a first stage. The debate has rather been centered on how to integrate reused hardware to preserve the cost savings without losing them to cost increases for new hardware by virtue of a smaller production run.
Musk said that in 2017 SpaceX hoped to launch six more flight-proven stages, including two on the company’s long-delayed Falcon Heavy rocket, and perhaps 12 in 2018.
Finding right mix of reused and new hardware, at the right cadence
Going forward, he said, “three-quarters or more” of SpaceX launches would feature previously flown hardware. But three-quarters of what total launch rate? He declined to answer a question on the minimum cadence needed to make the overall equation work.
European government and industry officials have tentatively concluded that a flight rate of at least 35-40 per year would be needed to close the business case for reusable rockets.
Any launch company hoping to maintain that rhythm would need to have a large government anchor — only the United States and China are in that category now — as well as a dominant share of the global commercial market.
Europe’s Arianespace launch consortium and its main shareholder, Airbus Safran Launchers, has had trouble getting European government commitments for five satellites per year, which they say is needed in addition to the expected seven commercial launches per year for the Ariane 6 rocket.
Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of the French space agency, CNES — who is worried enough about the SpaceX advance to have started a small reusable-rocket-engine program in Europe — agreed that what SpaceX did March 30 was “a breakthrough.” But he said the hard job is yet to come.
“After recovery, now the reuse,” Le Gall told the French financial daily, Les Echos. “The final step [for SpaceX] is cost reduction. Logically, if you reuse material, the cost should drop. But it all depends on the refurbishment cost. The day when a rocket can land and take off without interruption is not yet here, in my view.”
Musk disagreed. “The goal is zero hardware changes and a preflight within 24 hours,” he said. “The only change is that we reload the propellant. If not this year, I’m confident we’ll get there next year.”
SpaceX has been in business for 15 years and Musk has left a trail of overly optimistic forecasts about the company’s different milestones. But while it takes much longer than planned — how many years behind schedule is the Falcon Heavy? — SpaceX does eventually do what it says it will do.
Below is a table produced by investment bank Jeffries in 2016 on what might be possible in terms of price cuts from SpaceX, assuming the company’s current business generates a 40 percent gross margin and that SpaceX could give customers 50 percent of the cost savings, with the rest going to SpaceX to help recover its $1 billion investment.
Asked what he thought a launch with a previously flown first stage would cost, Musk said: “Actually, we’re trying to figure that out.”
Peter B. de Selding