WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

SpaceX successfully lands Falcon 9 rocket upright

Posted December 22, 2015

SpaceX successfully landed the first stage of their improved Falcon9 rocket upright Monday. While maybe not quite an Apollo 11, Sputnik or Kitty Hawk moment, there are about 30 million reasons why that first stage sitting on SpaceX’s new landing pad is important to the future of spaceflight. The next step in proving the viability of reusable vehicles will be refurbishing a first stage and launching it again.

The advertised price for a 2016 Falcon9 launch is $61.9 million, about the same as a commercial airliner. But unlike airliners, we discard nearly every spacecraft and all the vehicles that get them to orbit.

The most costly part of any launch vehicle is the first stage. It is where nearly all the rocket’s power to escape Earth’s gravity well lies. SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk publicly stated that the Falcon9 first stage is “almost three-quarters of the cost of the rocket.” With that in mind along with fuel (only about 0.3%) and launch support costs are considered, easily half of that $61.9 million investment could be used again.

Every rocket part returned to the ground, reused or not, is also one that’s not adding to the growing space junk problem. Many of the more than 500,000 pieces of debris orbiting Earth are spent rocket bodies. Some have been up there a long time. The rocket that launched Vanguard 2, a U.S. Navy weather satellite, into orbit in 1959 will be dimly visible in North Carolina skies starting at 7:20 p.m. tonight.

This new capability could make getting to space just a little more difficult with a new source of delays.

The 45th Weather Squadron supports the NASA and Air Force sides of Cape Canaveral with launch, and now landing weather forecasts. Launch managers use these forecasts, among of the most accurate in the world in part due to a dense network of sensors extending on the central Florida mainland, to make go, no-go decisions. 35% of launch delays at the Cape are due to weather. 47% of scrubs, expensive operations where rockets must be defueled and workers sent home to return 24 hours later, are due to weather.

Will the additional 10 minutes of favorable weather, not just at the surface but throughout the rocket’s flight path miles up and out over the Atlantic ocean, needed to successfully land the first stage increase scrubs and delays? It did for the shuttle program’s return to launch site emergency contingency plan. This week’s SpaceX launch was delayed 24 hours to take advantage of more favorable landing weather. Will this increase launch delays? Will future launch managers be faced with the decision to forgo first stage recovery to keep to the launch schedule? Time will tell but the economics of delays and scrubs may be offset by the benefits of reusability.

The company plans to reuse other stages including the Dragon Capsule on up to 10 flights according to Musk. If the company gets this right, it really could be a game changer. In a keynote speech at a satellite industry event in Singapore in 2013, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said, “with the cost of fuel and mission operations, beyond the initial investment in stages, we are looking at launches to be in the 5-7 million dollar range."

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