SpaceX and the Future of Rapid Reusability

Parts of a Falcon 9. Credit: Derek Wise

Reaching space has always been a costly endeavor. The famous Saturn V rocket that took us to the moon cost $185 million per launch; the equivalent of over $1.3 billion today. One major way some companies have been attempting to lower that cost is through the reuse of boosters. In the days of the shuttle they would tow the used solid rocket boosters into Port Canaveral to be refurbished and reused, but this was a long and costly process.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has had multiple versions since it first flew in 2010. SpaceX had hoped they would be able to reuse both stages of the Falcon 9, but it wasn’t until 2015, with the third iteration, v1.2 aka “Full Thrust”, that SpaceX landed their first booster, opening the door for the first re-flight of a booster in March of 2017. The “Full Thrust” and the “Block 4” variant that followed were only able to fly twice but the latest “Block 5” can fly many more. SpaceX was originally targeting 10 flights from each Falcon 9 Block 5 booster, however (after gaining information from further re-flights) Elon said on twitter they may be able to surpass 100 flights of a single booster.

This goal is certainly a while away, as we only recently saw the first booster to fly 8 times, and Elon is known for his optimistic timelines. That isn’t to downplay SpaceX’s success. Over the last year SpaceX broke the re-flight record multiple times, as well improved the turnaround time for re-flight to less than a month. In addition to reusing the Boosters, SpaceX is also recovering the fairings; which Elon once compared to “$6 million in cash on a pallet” falling through the air.

SpaceX is far ahead of every other organization in reusability of orbital rockets; though many others are joining the race. SpaceX, thanks to their fleet of boats, is able to recover and reuse the majority of their Falcon 9 – but they still aren’t entirely reusable. The second stage burns up on re-entry a significant amount of time after delivering the payload into orbit, and there is no practical way to change this. This is where Starship has an advantage.

Starship SN9 Reignites Raptor Engine. Credit: Kyle Montgomery

Under development in Boca Chica, Texas; Starship is being designed from the ground up with reusability in mind. This super-heavy lift launch vehicle is intended to bring humans to Mars, and back. Starship is designed to use methane, while the Falcon 9 uses RP-1 (a highly refined kerosene). Musk’s goal is for Starship to refuel in orbit, and again with methane generated on Mars. In addition, the entire rocket, not just a booster, is intended to be rapidly reusable. Musk ambitiously plans to be able to re-fly the rocket in a matter of hours; rather than days or months. With this goal of launching every few hours, the sonic booms created could become a major problem for nearby residents of Boca Chica and South Padre Island. This problem of sonic booms will eventually be addressed by moving the launch pad much farther away from communities, out to sea.

While SpaceX may have been the first to land rockets out at sea, launching from sea is not an entirely novel concept. The company Sea Launch had 32 successful launches from their ocean launch platform and China has begun launching their Long March 11 rocket from sea based platforms. Nonetheless, moving the launch site away from land is an important step for SpaceX to increase the frequency of launches with minimal disruption to people living in South Texas. It has been known for some time, that in order to achieve these goals, SpaceX was looking at repurposing old oil rigs. This became especially clear last summer when SpaceX listed job openings for an “Offshore Operations Engineer”. Despite this listing, the public did not see anything tangible come from it until very recently.

DEIMOS oil rig. Credit: Kyle Montgomery

On January 18th, photographer Jack Beyer took note of an oil rig with the name “DEIMOS” on the side, and suspected that SpaceX was involved. The space community on twitter quickly began researching. We were treated to more photos of the rig by Space Padre, and Michael Baylor soon uncovered that a subsidiary of SpaceX called Lone Star Mineral Development LLC purchased two oil rigs in July of 2020. These rigs, formerly ENSCO 8500 and ENSCO 8501 are now known as “DEIMOS” and “PHOBOS” as a reference to the moons of Mars, and Elon’s goal of bringing people to Mars on Starship. These oil rigs will soon be converted into dual-purpose launch and landing pads for Starship.

Starship SN9 Explodes. Credit: Kyle Montgomery

Starship is still early in the development process. We have seen many things change as they work to perfect the launch vehicle, including the landing process. We now know that SpaceX plans to move away from the landing legs used on SN8 and SN9, to instead use the tower arm to catch Starship by the grid fins as its landing. Elon believes this change would allow SpaceX to relaunch Starship in less than an hour, thanks to the ability to immediately reposition the rocket onto the launch mount.

SpaceX has lofty goals for Starship and aims to have its first orbital flight before the end of the year. Elon also estimated on Episode #1609 of The Joe Rogan Experience that Starship is two years away from landing with people on board. This is an ambitious timeline to say the least. Falcon 9 first flew people in 2020, yet they were awarded the Commercial Crew Program contract in 2014. This two year estimate could mean that people fly on Starship before they fly on NASA’s SLS; which was announced back in 2011.

As we look ahead, Rocket Lab is beginning the reuse process; as they plan to have their boosters descend under parachute and catch them from a helicopter. Blue Origin has already been reusing their New Shepard sub-orbital launch vehicle, which lands vertically; while their New Glenn rocket will be their first Orbital vehicle. New Glenn is also intended to land vertically. A renewed public interest is being fostered in spaceflight, in no small part thanks to the wonder of watching rockets land vertically; just like they used to in science fiction.