Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor
Cape Canaveral, FL, United States (4E) – The first SpaceX rocket capable of multiple reuse — the Falcon 9 Full Thrust Block 5 — successfully delivered its first satellite into orbit on May 11.
The first Block 5 to make it into space thrust the 3,500 kg Bangladeshi telecom satellite, Bangabandhu-1, into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) with the rocket’s first stage making a successful landing on one of SpaceX’s robot drone ships 11 minutes after lift-off.
The launch of the company’ most modern launch vehicle was a triumph for SpaceX’s long cherished dream of finally profiting from the reusability of its first stage boosters. Previous to Block 5, the older first stage boosters could only be reused twice and required lengthy and expensive refurbishment to prepare them for a new mission. This won’t be the case for Block 5.
A Block 5 first stage can be reused around 10 times with no refurbishment required between missions. After the tenth launch, refurbishment will prolong the vehicle’s operational life to 100 missions, said SpaceX.
“Ironically, we need to take it apart to confirm that it does not need to be taken apart,” said SpaceX founder Elon Musk. “This rocket probably won’t refly for probably a couple of months. But by late this year we should be seeing substantial reflight of Block 5 vehicles, probably with Block 5 boosters seeing their third, maybe their fourth reflight.”
The two-stage Block 5 will take reusability to new heights. “Block 5 basically summarizes all that we learned on reusability,” said Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president of build and flight reliability. “It’s a reliability upgrade that combines reliability and reusability.”
Block 5 has also been designed to meet NASA’s crew-carrying requirements. SpaceX holds a contract to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. These flights will begin in 2019.
Reusability is key to SpaceX’s long-term vision, which involves helping humanity become a multiplanet species. Full and rapid reuse of rockets and spacecraft will slash the cost of spaceflight enough to make such ambitious goals economically feasible, said Musk.
”This is a ridiculously hard thing,” said Musk before the maiden launch of Block 5. ”It has taken us … 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. Crazy hard. We still need to demonstrate it. It’s not like we’ve done it. But it can be done.”
SpaceX enhanced the engine performance of Block 5; strengthened various parts of the rocket and improved the landing gear system. In the most visible change, the color of the segment between the first and upper stages went from white to black with the addition of new thermal insulation.
Musk wants to ultimately recover the entire launch vehicle, and not just the first stage, which accounts for 60 percent of the cost. Musk plans to launch 30 of the Block 5s before beginning to build the BFR, or Big Falcon Rocket, in earnest. BFR will replace the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy and will be capable of launching spacecraft to Mars. Musk’s ultimate ambition is to colonize the Red Planet.
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