SpaceX launches the first Falcon 9 Block 5 from Kennedy Space Center on Friday, May 11, 2018.
The newest iteration of SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket took flight from Kennedy Space Center on Friday, carrying with it lessons learned from two years of reusability operations and the company’s ambitions to send humans beyond Earth orbit.
The 4:14 p.m. blastoff from pad 39A marked the premiere flight for the launch vehicle, known as Falcon 9 Block 5, and its ultimately successful mission to deliver Bangladesh’s first geostationary satellite to orbit. Before liftoff, company CEO Elon Musk conferenced with reporters and explained the how the new rocket should enable SpaceX to implement reuse more efficiently, all while developing its next launch vehicle.
Here’s what we know:
Block 5 is the last version of Falcon 9
It might not seem like it, but the Falcon 9 family has been around for a while – June will mark eight years since the vehicle first flew in 2010. Block 5, which according to Musk is arguably the sixth version of the rocket, will be the last major overhaul. Its improvements are ultimately designed to allow for more reusability and reliability, allowing the company to launch more with less.
“This will be the last major version of Falcon 9 before BFR,” Musk said while referencing the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR, which is under development and will be constructed at the Port of Los Angeles before transport to the Space Coast. “Expect this to be a mainstay of SpaceX’s business.”
Musk expects that with little to no refurbishment between missions, Block 5 boosters should be able to launch 10 times; with moderate work, they could launch up to 100 times. During those first 10 launches, Musk said the only necessary operations should be quick inspections and propellant loading.
Another key aspect of developing Block 5, Musk said, was making sure it meets NASA’s human-rating standards for eventual crewed missions. That list includes thousands of items, but the rocket will have to fly several times before it can be approved for crewed flights to the International Space Station, which are expected late this year or early next year.
Falcon 9’s hardware upgrades
Increased thrust: The rocket’s nine Merlin main engines now produce about 8 percent more power than older Block 4 models, bringing output to 190,000 pounds of thrust at sea level. That’s about 1.7 million pounds of thrust for the entire vehicle.
New black components: The all-white Falcon 9 is gone in favor of a mix that includes black segments composed of flame and water-resistant felt, which doesn’t require paint. These black segments include the interstage, which sits between the first and second stages, a “raceway” that runs the length of the booster, and the landing legs.
Upgrades to landing legs: The four landing legs, meanwhile, get a major revision for Block 5 and many of the features that were once on the outside have been moved inside. The internal latching mechanism, for example, can now be opened and closed with ease. Before, it took teams several hours to re-stow the landing gear after a mission.
Heat shield: A new heat shield at the base of the rocket means improved protections for a swath of components, as well as more flights before major refurbishment is necessary.
Titanium grid fins now standard: The dark-colored titanium grid fins, which steer the booster during its descent back to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station or a drone ship for landing, are now standard across all Block 5 Falcon 9s. Previously, they were only flown on select missions, such as Falcon Heavy’s debut flight in February. Musk said each fin is likely the largest single piece of forged titanium in the world.
Fairing 2.0 now included: Each upgraded Falcon 9 will fly with a new, slightly larger fairing. The protective nose cones, which cost about $6 million, now include hardware that will allow SpaceX to one day recover them much like it does with boosters. Tests are underway on the West Coast to catch the fairing halves with a giant, ship-mounted net.
Octaweb upgrades: The Octaweb, a metal structure that mounts eight engines surrounding the rocket’s center engine, was previously welded. Now, the structure features bolted components so it can be more quickly and flexibly modified.
Fuel loading: Propellant loading Block 5s is faster, too – instead of beginning at 70 minutes before launch like with previous Block 4 versions, teams begin loading liquid kerosene and liquid oxygen at T-minus 35 minutes.
Upgrades mean improved reusability
Musk for years has likened his company’s efforts as chasing after that of the aircraft industry. Much like Boeing doesn’t build a 747 for each flight, Musk has said, SpaceX shouldn’t have to build a brand new rocket for every mission.
Reusing Block 5s 10 times or more should help SpaceX increase its margins on rockets, lower costs for customers and increase access to space – all things Musk needs to fund eventual trips to Mars with BFR, according to experts.
“This rocket is really designed to be the most reliable rocket ever built,” Musk said. “That is unequivocally the intent.”
Falcon 9 price breakdown – and a discount
SpaceX was widely believed to charge about $60 million per launch until Musk announced during the conference that prices will see a drop to about $50 million for a flight-proven booster. Customers opting to fly on brand new version of Falcon 9, meanwhile, will still see a $60 million price tag.
He broke down the costs, too: The booster itself comes to about 60 percent of the cost; the second stage is 20 percent; the fairing accounts for 10 percent; and the launch itself fills the final 10 percent. Fueling, he said, only costs about $300,000 to $400,000 “depending on how you count it.”
Two launches in 24 hours?
SpaceX expects the Block 5 program as a whole to launch about 300 missions before the introduction of BFR into the manifest, but an increase in launch cadence is already underway: Teams are on track to double last year’s total.
“SpaceX will launch more rockets than any other country in 2018,” Musk added.
Musk also expects that a major milestone in spaceflight – something even touted by the Air Force as a significant accomplishment when it happens – should occur next year when SpaceX launches, lands and re-launches the same booster within 24 hours.
“That will be truly remarkable to launch the same orbital-class rocket twice in one day,” he said.
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