SpaceX Scores Another First With Its Dragon Spaceship

Eleven times now, SpaceX has launched Falcon 9 rockets into space, then landed their first-stage rockets back on Earth (or sometimes on water). At this point, the trick has almost become old hat. So what’s the company to do for an encore?

Try on a new hat, of course — or rather, another old one.

Dragon space capsule

Much like the old Space Shuttle, SpaceX’s Dragon spaceship can now launch, land, and launch again. Image source: SpaceX.

SpaceX changes the language of space flight

For some months now, I’ve been talking about how SpaceX is trying to change not just the economics of spaceflight, but the very language we use to describe it. By flying rockets and recovering them for later reuse (did I mention that they’ve already reused one rocket?), SpaceX has demonstrated that it’s entirely feasible to build a rocket to such high standards that it can be reused on multiple missions.

Having demonstrated this, SpaceX has now taken to calling each of its first-stage rockets that’s been used at least once “flight-proven.” The implication being that rockets built by the Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) United Launch Alliance venture, by Airbus‘ (NASDAQOTH:EADSY) Arianespace subsidiary, and by Roscosmos, are not flight proven; they’re mere disposable rockets, incapable of use for more than a single mission.

Now, more and more often, SpaceX is working to “prove” the “flyability” of its rockets’ other components as well.

Dragon gets its wings

Case in point: The mission that SpaceX flew just last week — launching an unmanned Dragon spaceship to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA — aimed to prove that SpaceX’s Dragons are also capable of making multiple trips to orbit and back.

On June 3, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center Launch Pad 39A. The Falcon wasn’t “flight proven” at the time, but the Dragon that it carried was — having previously been used on a similar supply run to ISS in September 2014. (By the way, SpaceX did also land the Falcon 9 first stage. So that rocket part, too, is now flight proven — the 10th such designee in SpaceX’s rocket fleet.)

For those keeping score, SpaceX has now:

  • launched 35 Falcon 9 rockets into space in eight years
  • landed 10 first-stage rockets once
  • landed one first stage rocket twice
  • and lost two rockets — one that exploded after launch in June 2015, and another that exploded during pre-flight testing in September 2016.

What’s next for SpaceX?

Let’s tally up the successes. Eleven times, SpaceX has landed Falcon 9 first stages back on Earth (and one of those has landed twice). In April, SpaceX recovered a used nose cone. Now, it’s recovered and reused a Dragon capsule. So what will SpaceX pull out of its bag of tricks next?

Logically, the recovered nose cone should probably be reused on a future flight. With that rocket part costing an estimated $6 million, learning to reuse the nose cone should allow SpaceX to shave the cost of its rocket launches by nearly 10%, increasing the price pressure on Boeing, Lockheed, and all the rest.

An even bigger deal, though, would be landing a Falcon second-stage rocket back on Earth for later reuse. That’ll be tricky, because as currently designed, the second stage has only one engine to work with, and an extremely limited fuel supply. (Its first-stage rockets have more fuel capacity and use three engines for reentry.)

Then again, SpaceX has done the impossible before. I wouldn’t put it past them to figure out this trick as well.

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