Late Friday afternoon, SpaceX successfully launched and landed the Block 5 upgrade of its Falcon 9 rocket for the first time. Along the way, the rocket also successfully deployed the Bangabandhu Satellite-1, which will provide video and broadband service for Bangladesh. But the implications for Elon Musk’s spaceflight operation are much larger than a single communications sattelite.
That’s because the Falcon 9 Block 5 represents a culmination of SpaceX’s founding mission – low-cost spaceflight through reusable rockets. According to Musk and SpaceX, each Block 5 rocket will be able to fly at least 10 missions with minimal refurbishing, and with as little as 24 hours between launches. One major part of that reuse is landing the rocket’s first stage back on Earth, which SpaceX pulled off without a hitch after yesterday’s launch.
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But many other small improvements to the Falcon 9 are also key to true low-cost reusability. The Block 5 upgrades, according to Thursday statements from Musk reported by Ars Technica, have been learned bit by bit since the company’s founding. Musk said it has taken “sixteen years of extreme effort and many, many iterations, and thousands of small but important development changes to get to where we think this is even possible.” Musk also emphasized that “we still need to demonstrate” the 24 hour turnaround time, “but it can be done.”
The Block 5 improvements include making the rocket’s boosters more durable and powerful, and strengthening the infrastructure that holds the engines in place. In addition to making the rockets more reusable, the improvements should help the Falcon 9 qualify to carry humans into space. NASA wants to see seven successful flights by the upgraded Falcon 9, which could then be used to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station.