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SpaceX’s upgraded Falcon 9 debuts with launch for Bangladesh (and rocket landing)

Falcon 9 launch
SpaceX’s first Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket lifts off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX sent a Bangladeshi telecommunications satellite into orbit today atop what CEO Elon Musk calls the “last major version” of its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket.

But Musk has yet more tweaks up his sleeve: He’s aiming to make the Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket — including its nose cone and second stage — fully reusable, with a turnaround time of as little as 24 hours.

“For those that know rockets, this is a ridiculously hard thing,” he told reporters during a pre-launch briefing. “It’s taken us, man, since 2002 — 16 years of extreme effort and many, many iterations and thousands of small but important development changes to get to where we think this is even possible.”

The Block 5 era began with today’s liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 4:14 p.m. ET (1:14 p.m. PT).

Launch had originally been scheduled for the day before, but SpaceX’s flight control computer triggered an abort sequence with less than a minute left in Thursday’s countdown. SpaceX said the problem had to do with a software setting that was left over from a previous test sequence and hadn’t been properly reset.

Today’s countdown, in contrast, went as smooth as silk all the way to liftoff.

Minutes after launch, the rocket’s first-stage booster flew itself to a touchdown on an oceangoing platform known as “Of Course I Still Love You.” Meanwhile, the second stage successfully sent the Bangabandhu Satellite-1 to geosynchronous transfer orbit. Both those developments drew cheers from SpaceX employees watching the webcast from the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.

Bangabandhu-1 will be Bangladesh’s first geostationary communications satellite, and will provide satellite TV services as well as broadband connectivity and emergency communications services to the South Asian nation and the surrounding region.

As important as the payload is, proving out the Block 5 design is arguably just as important: The rocket has been upgraded with a more powerful version of SpaceX’s Merlin engine, more resilient thermal protection and more streamlined landing legs. One of its trademark identifying features is a black interstage section in the middle, which is made of unpainted carbon composite material.

Many more upgrades from Block 4 are under the hood, Musk said.

“The key to Block 5 is, it’s designed to do 10 or more flights with no refurbishment between each flight,” he told reporters. With periodic refurbishment, a single first-stage booster could be capable of executing on the order of 100 flights before its retirement, he said.

Quick turnaround is another SpaceX goal. By the end of next year, Musk aims to demonstrate that a single Falcon 9 booster could be used for two orbital launches within 24 hours. “That will be a very, very exciting outcome,” he said.

Musk said this first Block 5 rocket would be brought back to shore, taken apart and inspected to verify its rapid reusability. “Ironically, we need to take it apart to prove that it does not need to be taken apart,” he joked.

The Block 5 model is designed to satisfy NASA’s requirements for launching astronauts as well as the Air Force’s requirements for national security payloads. If all goes according to plan, Block 5 rockets will start sending test crews to the International Space Station for NASA later this year.

Musk said there’ll be no Block 6. Instead, SpaceX’s rocket design team will focus on the BFR, the “Big Frickin’ Rocket” that’s meant to be capable of carrying payloads and people to the moon and Mars within the next decade. The spaceship portion of the BFR system could begin short-hop testing, similar to the Falcon 9’s early Grasshopper test flights, as early as next year.

SpaceX Falcon 9 landing
A video feed from SpaceX’s autonomous drone landing ship, “Of Course I Still Love You,” shows the Falcon 9’s first-stage booster safely landed. (SpaceX via YouTube)

There will be additional “minor refinements” in Block 5, Musk said. SpaceX aims to recover the Falcon 9’s nose cone, or fairing, by having it deploy a parafoil and sail into a giant net deployed from a ship. Even the second stage could be recovered from orbit, Musk said, but the requisite thermal protection system still has to be developed.

Reusing rockets is key to Musk’s grand strategy of lowering the cost of access to space and eventually making it possible to send thousands of settlers to Mars, thus turning humanity into a multiplanetary species. He compared his future vision for spaceflight to the current business model for commercial aviation, which relies on using the same flying vehicle for thousands of flights.

“Would you rather fly in an aircraft that has never had a test flight before, or do you want to fly on an aircraft that has flown many times successfully?” he told reporters.

Musk said greater reusability is already having an impact on SpaceX’s famously low pricing for rocket launches. While the base price for a launch that uses a brand-new Falcon 9 is $60 million, the equivalent price for a previously flown Falcon 9 is $50 million, he said.

He said the marginal cost of a orbital rocket launch could eventually fall to a slim fraction of that figure, but he cautioned that SpaceX still had to cover fixed costs. The company will also have to cover the not-inconsequential development costs for the BFR and for SpaceX’s Starlink broadband satellite constellation.

SpaceX’s facilities in Redmond, Wash., are taking the lead role in the Starlink effort. The constellation’s first prototype satellites were sent into orbit in February, and within the next few years, Starlink is expected to become a major contributor to SpaceX’s bottom line.

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