Rand Simberg had a conversation with Elon Musk about SpaceX’s plans for a fully reusable Falcon 9 launch vehicle. Some of the key highlights:
- “It really comes down to what the staging Mach number would be,” Musk says, referencing the speed the rocket would be traveling at separation. “For an expendable Falcon 9 rocket, that is around Mach 10. For a reusable Falcon 9, it is around Mach 6, depending on the mission.” For the reusable version, the rocket must be traveling at a slower speed at separation because the burn must end early, preserving enough propellant to let the rocket fly back and land vertically. This also makes recovery easier because entry velocities are slower.
- However, the slower speed also means that the upper stage of the Falcon rocket must supply more of the velocity needed to get to orbit, and that significantly reduces how much payload the rocket can lift into orbit. “The payload penalty for full and fast reusability versus an expendable version is roughly 40 percent,” Musk says. “[But] propellant cost is less than 0.4 percent of the total flight cost. Even taking into account the payload reduction for reusability, the improvement is therefore theoretically over a hundred times.” (more…)