Elon Musk wants to save taxpayers tens of billions of dollars by firing rockets cheaper.
In recent years he has been working on the problem. First he played with a “Grasshopper” rocket to see if it was possible to shoot out and then safely move part of a rocket. SpaceX then scaled up Grasshopper to the reusable Falcon 9 rockets that have become a mainstay of space launch, landing some on dry ground and others at sea. Then came the invention of recyclable and reusable space capsules, and finally boats equipped with giant nets to catch falling rocket covers before falling into the sea.
Step by step, Musk has learned to regain most of the value of each rocket launched, saving money by not having to build more and more parts and instead use them over and over again.
The first and last flight to Starship SN9
On Tuesday 2 February, SpaceX conducted its second altitude flight test for a new 100% reusable rocket – Starships. In 6 minutes and 26 exciting seconds, the Starship model “SN9” flew 10 kilometers up in the air, turned sideways, fell 10 kilometers down again, turned again to try a vertical landing – and failed to hold the landing.
SN9 fell too fast and touched more diagonally than vertically, and exploded SN9 in a flame ball on impact. In doing so, it duplicated the fate of its predecessor prototype, the SN8, which had actually come closer to landing successfully in its test flight back on 9 December.
Why did SN9 fail? How did it actually work to perform worse than SN8? See for yourself:
Direct feed of Starship SN9 flight test → https://t.co/Hs5C53qBxb https://t.co/ioM0D5J91I
– SpaceX (@SpaceX) February 2, 2021
First, the SN9 engines waited three seconds longer to re-ignite their landing combustion last week than the SN8 did two months ago. To make matters worse, SpaceX says, “a Raptor engine did not ignite at all, causing the SN9 to land at high speed” (and outside the kilter).
If you first (and second) do not succeed, do you give up?
So in sum, SpaceX adjusted the landing process for SN9, but a mechanical difficulty prevented this new approach from working – this time. The good news is that SpaceX already has a “clear solution” to the problem (shooting three engines in the landing instead of two).
That said, the ship landing has a clear solution. My biggest concern is to achieve a good payload for the track with fast and full reusability, without which we will forever be limited to the earth.
– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 5, 2021
It was foolish of us not to start 3 engines and immediately turn off 1, as two are needed to land
– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 4, 2021
Within hours of the SN9 exploding, SpaceX has already figured out how to do better next time. And it’s definitely coming next time – maybe sooner than you think.
Think: SN8 ran its test flight on December 9, 2020. Less than two months later, SpaceX was ready to try again with SN9. And in the image above, you may have noticed that SpaceX already has a third Starship rocket lined up for it is turn to try – SN10. (And an SN11 is under construction while we talk.)
What happens afterwards?
In total, SpaceX expects to go through as many as twenty SN prototypes in quick succession before finally equipping one with a complement of six Raptor engines (these test versions use only three) and sending it into orbit. So even with SN9 in blacksmiths, this suggests that the company is almost halfway done with the testing.
With the pace of test launches accelerating, it seems likely that before this year is out, we could see a starship in orbit.
What happens then?
At that time, SpaceX will be the only company on earth to have a fully recoverable, fully reusable space rocket – and not only that, but the largest space rocket on the planet, capable of lifting more than 100 tonnes of cargo to orbit.
I do not think it is too loud to say that when this happens, the world will change.
Suddenly, SpaceX will have a rocket that, once built, needs little more than refueling before it can be used over and over again, bringing the cost of space launch down to the cost of refueling. Most people try everyone compete with SpaceX, though – and I’m thinking in particular Boeing and Lockheed Martin and their United Launch Alliance joint venture here – will continue to spend more expensively usable rockets. That, or they will drive to catch up with SpaceX, as Arianespace in Europe, Linkspace in China and Roscosmos in Russia do.
And even these rockets will be a generation behind SpaceX, and be only partially reusable (like the Falcon 9).
While competitors catch up to the latest generation of reusable rockets, SpaceX can meanwhile begin phasing out its own Falcon 9s and Falcon Heavies – and the landing tracks, fairing catchers and all other infrastructure needed to recapture the rocket parts piecemeal. Its overhead costs will go down, the cost of doing business will go down, and SpaceX will be able to underprice every single company it competes with, dominating the space industry for years to come.
Play, set and match: SpaceX.