Video: SpaceX’s Reusable Launch System

An animation of a launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 with Dragon showing powered vertical return of both stages and the Dragon. Credit: SpaceX

During an appearance at the National Press Club today, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said that reusing the Falcon 9 rocket could lead to a 100-fold decrease in launch costs.  The Falcon 9 costs $50 million to build, but the fuel is only $200,000 per flight. So, the more times SpaceX reuses the same rocket, the lower the per flight cost becomes.

SpaceX is working on a prototype for reusable stages, which it wants to test at its facility in McGregor, Texas. The development is expected to take 3 years.

  • JT Turbins

    This video made my day.

    I feel like there is a big technological leap between a reusable first stage and a reusable second stage. Am I correct in my understanding that at separation, the first stage is low enough in the atmosphere that it doesn’t require a heat shield for descent? So after it flips around to perform a retro burn it is properly oriented for landing?

    But the second stage has to flip 180 degrees to orient itself for reentry, and then flip 180 degrees again in atmo to position itself for landing? I think that in-atmo 180 degree flip would be very difficult. Attempting a manuever at high speed like that makes me think of all the trouble DARPA had with their Falcon.

  • Anthony Cook

    Some of the Grasshopper video reminded me of some of the ideas developed for re-using the SC-1 (first stage) of the Saturn V. See:

    and a flyback version:

  • DocM

    The 180° flip is something Dragon’s do before re-entry so the basic avionics are a known quantity. The tricks will be the thermal protection systems and making the added fuel & landing gear mass minimal.

  • warshawski

    Absaloutly fantastic, it looks cool and it is a progression of other SpaceX work so it looks achievable. I agree with DocM the trick will be to keep the weight down but as it will be re-usable you can accept a lower payload fraction to orbit as the fuel cost is such a small fraction of the cost of the rocket.
    This has the potential to revolutionise space industry by making orbiatl flight affordable for business, microgravity manufacturing, resource extraction etc. Also it will make deep space missions lots cheaper.

  • Jamdown Man

    Anthony, the animation is not for the Grasshopper, it is based on what the a reusable falcon 9 launch system may look like. So is a current falcon 9 costs between $60M – $80M, and reusability reduces that further by a order of 100, then a revised falcon launch vehicle would cost about $60,000.00 per flight. That would put access to space in the hands of cities, states, universities. Could you imagine the NYPD having a satellite built of their purposes and having it launched by SpaceX because it would be very affordable. The future is exciting !!!

  • Paul451

    Don’t forget, the Falcon Heavy first-and-a-half stage is three F9 first stages. If you can reduce the cost of the F9 by 100-fold, you also reduce the cost of at least the FH first stage by the same factor.

    Don’t forget #2, these guys are developing this stuff simultaneously on a budget that NASA and it’s primary contractors wouldn’t get out of bed for.

  • Michael Turner

    “Am I correct in my understanding that at separation, the first stage is low enough in the atmosphere that it doesn’t require a heat shield for descent?”

    Probably depends on how high it gets. By reentering at a higher angle, it might require MORE heat shielding. However, Musk has said that he’ll consider SpaceX a failure if it never achieves 100% reusability, and he obviously has some pretty smart people working for him. It’s not easy to believe that 100% TSTO reusability has just been sitting there all this time, waiting for someone to figure it out. But it was also hard to believe that SpaceX would hit $2000/lb with promise of going lower, and it seems they’ve managed to do that.

    Three years? Maybe more like six — or never, perhaps, if CCDev gets crushed to death under pork.

  • Ucther

    $60,000,000.00 divided by 100 = $600,000.00.
    They said the fuel was $200,000.00 so that means $400,000.00 to refurbish and re-stack a Falcon9. I hope the heat shields can be used more than once.

  • robinmd

    The video appears to show both stages landing back at the launch site…but at least the first state would have to land down range and will require infrastructure and shipping, right? I just don’t see the first stage burning long enough to go around once…so it would follow a ballistic path (controlled by its reentry burn) to land in Europe or somewhere to the east. That would require some infrastructure and shipping. It will surely be an interesting control scheme to land that first stage the way there showing with all the weather conditions it will see on the way down in terms of various wind shears etc. withouth the “brute force acceleration” used in launch to punch through that stuff. Not impossible, but not easy either…like trying to balance a broomstick in the wind. I imagine that alone will complicate allowable launch conditions. Still pretty cool if they can make it work.

  • scottfuturist

    I see two practical challenges to this system.
    1) The amount of fuel the Dragon would have to retain when docking with the ISS would scare the %#@& out of me if I were an astronaut/cosmonaut/taikonaut on the ISS watching it close in on me. I’m sure the uberconservative governmentally controlled ISS overseers would not allow such a system to dock.

    2) Making a powered landing of the Dragon leaves no margin for failure. With a multi-parachute system things can go wrong and still the crew would survive. I think that one way or the other (wings or parachutes) aerodynamics will be required to return crews to Earth for the foreseeable future. But good luck on the effort; more unlikely

  • Marcus Zottl

    @ scottfuturist

    You know 1) because of what kind of insider knowledge?

    The European ATV docks to the ISS with almost 4 (metric) tonnes of “extra” fuel on board – ~3 tonnes for station reboosting, the rest to transfer to the Russian segment of the ISS. And ATV is currently the only vehicle that is allowed to dock completely autonomous (humans can abort, but generally don’t interfere much with docking).

    I have no idea how much propellant is needed for powered landing, but considering the fact that the space on Dragon is quite limited (even with the new model of DragonRider having the SuperDracos mounted externally), I simply can’t imagine that it would be orders of magnitude more than on ATV.

    regarding 2)
    I’m no expert, but Dragon will have 8 (4×2) SuperDracos and for powered landing you do not need the engines to run at full power (just ask the Armadillo or Masten guys). So even if one engine fails, you can throttle up the one next to the failed one to compensate. I believe Elon has said this at one of his presentations. So there is a (small) margin for failure. With a 3 parachute system, I believe you can loose one chute and still survive? But currently everybody flies on board of Soyuz, which uses only a single main parachute, so there is no margin for error on that vehicle.

  • scottfuturist

    Thanks for the information @ Marcus Zottl. I have no insider information, just engineering common sense and assumptions. There is a tremendous difference between designing a fuel cell dedicated to delivery of fuel to another vehicle versus designing a system with the lowest possible weight of every component for powered descent from Earth orbit. I imagine (no insider knowledge) that the fuel cells for the current Dragon capsule (guided free-fall to parachute descent) are not the same as what would be used in the powered descent to landing model. There will be a lot of calculated compromise between strength and weight for the fuel system of the next generation Dragon. What you said about the redundant engines is perfectly valid, but the timing of the primary engine failure is the most critical element in your scenario. All of this strikes me as a Rube Goldberg approach to what aerodynamics allows intrinsically. Powered descent to the moon or Mars makes sense, but fighting Earth’s atmosphere during reentry, then, practically, ignoring it while fighting with Earth’s gravity during descent to landing seems logically hypocritical. My original post didn’t include my corrected ending statement: But good luck on the effort; more unlikely successes have occurred throughout history and the theme song for this video forebodes that well!