At a Saturday press conference, Mashable reports, SpaceX vice president Hans Koenigsmann announced that the rocket company will re-use the rocket from its CRS-8 mission, which successfully landed on a drone ship on April 8th. The announcement follows previous statements from CEO Elon Musk that the company would conduct its first re-launch of a previously recovered craft in September or October.
Re-using rockets is central to SpaceX’s plan to radically reduce the cost of space flight. A Falcon 9 mission is priced at about $60 million, with the rocket’s first stage making up about 3/4ths of launch costs. By contrast, Musk has estimated that fuel and other propellant only makes up about $200,000, or 0.3% of the cost of a mission. That means successful re-use could dramatically drop overall costs.
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The only unknown in that plan is the cost and difficulty of refurbishing rockets for re-use. Because launches have such generally low fault tolerance, rockets will have to be brought back up to like-new condition to be safely reusable. That’s a big challenge because the trip back to Earth involves extremely high heat, as well as potential collision with space debris or meteorites. The closest thing to a reusable space flight system that has previously succeeded is the Space Shuttle program, which required several months of refurbishing work between launches.
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Falcon 9’s first stage, though, returns from lower altitudes than the Space Shuttle. This Stack Exchange thread includes some enlightening photos of the first-stage engines of a Falcon 9 clean and shiny before the launch, then blackened and soot-stained—but not noticeably battered—after recovery.
So maybe all SpaceX needs to get the CRS-8 rocket back up and running is a few thousand cans of Comet. If so, we could see the real culmination of their ambitious plans by this Fall.