Elon Musk wants save taxpayers tens of billions of dollars by launching cheaper rockets.

For several years, he has been working on the problem. First, he was playing with a “Grasshopper” rocket to see if it was possible to safely launch and then land part of a rocket. SpaceX then enlarged Grasshopper in the reusable Falcon 9 rockets which have become a mainstay of space launch, land some on dry ground and others at sea. Then come the invention of recoverable and reusable space capsules, and finally boats. equipped with giant nets to capture rocket shrouds falling before they fall into the sea.

Step by step, Musk learned how to recoup most of the value of each rocket launched, saving money by not having to rebuild more and more parts and, instead, using them again and again. Again.

But he hasn’t finished yet. Now he’s building a rocket that 100% reusable. And it’s almost ready for prime time.

Image source: Elon Musk.

The first and last flight of the Starship SN9

On Tuesday, February 2, SpaceX conducted its second high-altitude flight test for a new 100% reusable rocket – the Vessel. In a thrilling 6 minutes and 26 seconds, the model ship “SN9” flew 10 kilometers in the air, turned sideways, landed 10 kilometers, spun again to attempt a vertical landing – and failed to glue the landing.

Descending too fast and landing more diagonally than vertically, SN9 exploded into a fireball on impact. In doing so, it replicated the fate of its predecessor prototype, the SN8, which was in fact on the verge of a successful landing on its test flight on December 9.

Why did SN9 fail? How did it actually seem to work worse than the SN8? See for yourself:

For one thing, the SN9’s engines waited three more seconds to reignite for landing last week than the SN8 did two months ago. To make matters worse, SpaceX says, “a Raptor engine did not reignite at all, causing SN9 to land at high speed” (and staggered).

If on the first (and second) you don’t succeed, do you give up?

So, in summary, SpaceX tweaked its landing process for the 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 (firing three engines on landing instead of two).

Hours after the SN9 explosion, SpaceX has already figured out how to do better next time. And there will definitely be a next time – maybe sooner than you think.

Consider: The SN8 performed its test flight on December 9, 2020. Less than two months later, SpaceX was ready to try again with the SN9. And in the photo above, you may have noticed that SpaceX already has a third Starship rocket lined up for his turn to try – the SN10. (And an SN11 is under construction as we speak.)

What happens next?

In total, SpaceX expects to run through up to twenty SN prototypes in quick succession before outfitting one with a full set of six Raptor engines (these test builds only use three) and dispatching it. in orbit. So even with the SN9 in shambles, that implies that the company has almost completed its testing halfway.

With the pace of test launches accelerating, it seems likely that before the end of this year we could see a spacecraft in orbit.

What happens then?

At this point, SpaceX will be the only company on Earth with a fully salvageable, fully reusable space rocket – and not just that, but the largest space rocket on the planet, capable of lifting more than 100 tonnes of freight in orbit.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that once that happens the world will change.

All of a sudden, SpaceX will have a rocket that, when built, only needs a little more refueling before it can be reused over and over again, bringing the cost of space launch down to the cost of filling the tank. Almost everyone tries to compete with SpaceX, however – and I am particularly thinking of Boeing and Lockheed Martin and their United Launch Alliance joint venture here – will still use consumable rockets. That, or they’ll run to catch up with SpaceX, like Arianespace in Europe, Link space in China, and Roscosmos in Russia done.

And even these rockets will be a generation behind SpaceX, being only partially reusable (similar to the Falcon 9).

As its competitors catch up with the latest generation of reusable rockets, SpaceX can begin to phase out its own Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavies – as well as the landing barges, fairing sensors, and all the other infrastructure needed to recover its rocket parts. one by one. Its overheads will go down, its operating costs will go down, and SpaceX may undervalue every company it competes with, dominating space industry for the coming years.

Game, set and match : EspaceX.


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