We have to go back!
March 30, 2017 7:32 AM   Subscribe

F9-33 is going back into space! The first booster to successfully conduct a return landing is going back into space, hopefully today, as SES-10. After eight successful attempts to return the first stage booster to a landing pad, SpaceX is ready to go full circle and reuse one of their previously returned booster stages in a commercial flight. The launch window is scheduled for today between 18:27 and 20:57 EDT and will be viewable live on SpaceX's hosted stream.
posted by Talez (34 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Fingers crossed that it works and this method proves to be one of several to make spaceflight cheaper.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:15 AM on March 30, 2017

Godspeed, booster!
posted by Splunge at 8:18 AM on March 30, 2017

This is a bigger deal than it looks at first glance. The entire vehicle is being reused which is a first for a spacecraft launched to orbit. The Shuttle promised this decades ago, but many parts were disposable and the reused parts took far more time and money to ready for the next flight than anticipated. This rocket is pretty much landed, washed off, gassed up and relaunched. I'm oversimplifying a bunch, but relative to the Shuttle it was that 'easy'. The F9 doesn't have the capacity or capability of the Shuttle but if reuse becomes routine this could scale to match or exceed the capacity with far less complexity than the Shuttle stack. The Falcon Heavy LEO payload capacity is roughly that of the Shuttle and all three boosters are planned for reuse in the same way as this launch. If the FH works and launch costs don't jump unexpectedly the idea can scale even further.

In this picture (click on it to zoom and see what I'm talking about) of the used rockets in their hangar you can see signs of use like soot and discoloration which I think it pretty cool. They could repaint it and make it prettier but it's better like this.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 8:24 AM on March 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

Btw, just the first stage will be reused, not the entire vehicle (second stage, fairings and all corresponding parts) will be brand new.

But still, what a great feat of engineering! I'm quite excited, and really, really, really hope there won't be any RUD (rapid unplanned disassembly...) tonight. That would be a shame, even though not a critical setback.
posted by SAnderka at 8:45 AM on March 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

> The entire vehicle is being reused which is a first for a spacecraft launched to orbit.

(On preview, what SAnderka said!)

The Falcon's upper stage is expendable still, and the first stage booster (the part they are re-using) does not orbit. They're still not reusing the entire orbital spacecraft. But this is for a good reason!

In practice, this is almost as cost-effective as full re-use. The first stage is the most expensive part of the rocket, so recovering it yields most of the savings. If you wanted to make the upper stage reusable too, you would need to make it carry enough extra fuel and thermal shielding to land, which would reduce its payload capacity a lot. This weight trade-off is particularly nasty for upper stages because each pound of extra stuff in orbit translates to one fewer pound of payload that you can deliver. So what they're doing is sort of a middle-road between reusability and cost. It's much much cheaper than what other big players like NASA and ULA are doing. But we're still not at the point where we can launch an orbital rocket for just the cost of fuel.
posted by edlinfan at 8:52 AM on March 30, 2017

Well fair enough I suppose, I guess I considered the second stage the payload (or part of the payload) as it's the thing delivered to space by the vehicle. But yeah I suppose the payload and fairing and such are part of the vehicle as well. All the science I don't understand, I just think it's neat.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 8:52 AM on March 30, 2017

The entire vehicle is being reused which is a first for a spacecraft launched to orbit.
I'm afraid not - the entire first stage booster is being reused, which is by far the largest and probably the most expensive part of the vehicle, but the second stage and the fairing are still expendable. IIRC they're still researching ways to recover the fairings, which might be "fluffy" enough to survive high speed reentry, but they've abandoned their original plans to try and recover the second stage.
The Shuttle promised this decades ago, but many parts were disposable and the reused parts took far more time and money to ready for the next flight than anticipated.
The Shuttle SRBs were so hard to reuse that it was honestly a wash as to whether or not it would have been cheaper to just trash them and build new ones each time, yes. Part of what SpaceX is clearly doing right is that they're not optimizing for "performance per pound of vehicle", under which metric solid rocket boosters make sense, nor "kickbacks to influential Congressional districts and lobbyists", under which metric you can't *not* use solid rocket boosters, but rather "performance per dollar", under which you want to be able to say:
This rocket was pretty much landed, washed off, gassed up and relaunched. I'm oversimplifying a bunch, but relative to the Shuttle it was that 'easy'.
To some extent the Shuttle was crippled by three factors:

Sidelining "performance per dollar", as mentioned above. Rocket fuel is super cheap, hardly worth trying to save, and definitely not worth trying to save at the cost of more complex manufacturing and operations. But I suppose if you build a space industry on top of a missile industry, you get a lot of skilled people who try to make rockets as small as possible rather than as cheap as possible, because originally "how many rockets can we fit on a nuclear submarine" was a much more critical question than "how cheap can we make a nuclear submarine".

Shuttle had to recover a huge upper stage, because the Air Force wanted a ton (ten tons, to be literal) of payload return capacity with a huge cross-range landing capability, I guess because nobody realized how fast spy satellite communications would go to pure digital transmission? Neither feature never got used very much. SpaceX, on the other hand, is trying to take heavy satellites from Earth to space, but other than what little people/experiments/trash you can stuff in a Dragon capsule they don't yet care about returning much from space back to Earth. So they can focus on reusability in the lower stage, which is much much bigger (so you get more savings by making it reusable) and less performance-critical (so you don't lose as much payload by adding systems for reusability) and lower-speed (so it's easier to make it reusable).

Shuttle used 1970s materials technology, and except for the external tank they were stuck with it 30 years later, because the external tank was the only thing they threw away. The ET thereby lost thousands and thousands of pounds of weight in subsequent upgrades to improved alloys, but the rest of the system was saddled with atavistic design decisions long before it was retired. SpaceX gets to use 21st century materials from the start, and because they made the boosters cheap enough to expend they also have an excuse to regularly build new boosters with upgrades like stretched tanks and super-cooled LOX. The embarrassing delays of Falcon Heavy have been partly mitigated by the fact that new Falcon 9 versions now carry heavier payloads than we originally imagined was possible. Even in the distant future they're talking about trashing boosters after a few dozen flights at most, which gives them 95% of the cost savings of reusability but would still let them make significant upgrades every year.
The Falcon Heavy LEO payload capacity is roughly that of the Shuttle and all three boosters are planned for reuse in the same way as this launch.
That will be *really* impressive if it works. Originally, landing on a drone ship served two functions: it let them practice landing for the first few times in a safe site where major failures wouldn't endanger anyone or anything but the ship, and it lets them launch slightly-heavier payloads by requiring less fuel for the booster to land... but with FH landing at sea is indispensable - the side boosters can get back to the launch site easily, but the center booster will be moving much too fast to turn around and fly back to land without killing performance, so the options are drone ship landing or nothing.
posted by roystgnr at 8:53 AM on March 30, 2017 [7 favorites]

The full Falcon is actually still expendable if you need more payload but I assume you'll have to pay an arm and a leg for it.
posted by Talez at 8:54 AM on March 30, 2017

Heh, I had a whole comment written about how this booster will have had a lot more done to it than just a wash and refuel, but this is starting to look like a pile-on now! Suffice to say that that kind of kick-the-tires-and-light-the-fires turnaround won't happen until the next version of Falcon 9 (Block 5), due to start flying later this year, that incorporates all the lessons learned from these earlier recovered boosters.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 8:59 AM on March 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

rhamphorhynchus, that wouldn't be a pile on at all! None of us have talked about first-stage reconditioning yet, and I'm curious how difficult it is today and how Block 5 will help (doubtless many others are curious as well!).
posted by edlinfan at 9:03 AM on March 30, 2017

I guess I considered the second stage the payload (or part of the payload) as it's the thing delivered to space by the vehicle
Delivered to space, but useless in space. They really did want to try to get those back and reuse them, they just couldn't figure out how to get them to survive reentry without performance-killing levels of fuel use.

You can see how vastly high-speed reentry impacts reusability design when you look at the BFR. There they *have* to get the second stage landed, so just like with Shuttle that stage is designed to be giant, mostly air inside, and designed to do non-ballistic atmospheric entry with a big flat heat-shielded lifting surface. The only part of the BFR design that's obviously less risky than Shuttle is the heat shield, where instead of Shuttle's fancy ceramic tiles (which would have been fantastic if they'd worked perfectly but which ended up causing refurbishment and safety issues all the way to the end of the program) SpaceX is using PICA-X 3.0, which is just a much-upgraded version of the "let your heat shield ablate so the rest of your vehicle won't" technology that Apollo relied on.
posted by roystgnr at 9:03 AM on March 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

The soot and discoloration and general slightly tatty look of the reused booster is very cool (it's upright on the pad right now). Like going from the Discovery One to the Millennium Falcon.

edlinfan: Yeah, how much refurbishment is the billion dollar question. SpaceX haven't said, but they have commented on the varying amounts of damage each booster took and that they have learned lessons that will reduce the work they have to do. IIRC, new legs that don't have to be removed and a bolted-together octaweb (instead of welded) are rumoured, but not much more has leaked.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 9:12 AM on March 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

The other rumoured new thing for this flight is a robot on the landing-barge that's supposed to drive over and grab the booster to keep it stable after landing. They've been testing it recently, but haven't said if it'll be used for this launch.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 10:28 AM on March 30, 2017

There's also a rumor about a fairing recovery attempt on this launch here but not much about who the "some officials" are that are claiming it.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 11:16 AM on March 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Steve Jurvetson would probably count as an official.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 11:27 AM on March 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:39 AM on March 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Now you can watch ALL the streams!
posted by Kyol at 3:11 PM on March 30, 2017

Stream is up and we're going for a 18:27 launch.
posted by Talez at 3:13 PM on March 30, 2017

Successful stage 1 separation and stage 2 ignition!
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:31 PM on March 30, 2017

They did it. I can't believe they did it.
posted by Talez at 3:36 PM on March 30, 2017

Successful landing!
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:36 PM on March 30, 2017

Shame they lost both the booster and Of Course I Still Love You's video feed, but it was kind of funny how the ship feed came back and the booster was just sitting there like "oh hey what's up guys"
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:38 PM on March 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

As I commented to a friend the other day, if we have to live in a future dominated by asshole billionaires, at least Elon Musk does some cool shit, as opposed to the Koch brothers and their ilk who only care about destroying the future to make themselves more money. So yay, I guess?
posted by tavella at 3:56 PM on March 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

(that's Yay? to Elon Musk, the actual reused rocket landing gets a Yay!)
posted by tavella at 3:59 PM on March 30, 2017

Good job, Spacex. I don't know which angle to credit for this stuff being so fascinating: The plucky little aerospace company taking on the established players in the rocket launch business and winning so much so quickly, the technical novelty of seeing rockets land, or the vague hope that lower-cost launches might lead to something useful if not an actual Mars colony. Maybe it's just that it's been so long since there was noticeable progress in the technology of space travel that any little bit seems wonderful. In any case it's fun to watch.
posted by sfenders at 4:09 PM on March 30, 2017

Tavella: Yeah, it was when he named the drone ships after Iain M Banks Culture Minds, that I figured it was ok to cheer him on. I mean, a standard issue Silicon Valley scumbag would have called them Dagny or Galt or something.

Also, that flight couldn't have gone much better really. Next stop: Falcon Heavy!
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 4:11 PM on March 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm utterly disappointed nobody noticed the Dragon reference in the tags.
posted by Talez at 5:47 PM on March 30, 2017

Does anyone have links to a transcript of Musk's press conference? It's on YouTube now but the autogenerated captioning is worthless and I can't do audio while putting the baby to sleep. From notes on twitter and elsewhere I gather:

The grid fins took more wear than anticipated, and with aluminum fins the anticipated level of wear is "metal actually catches on fire when coming in fast from a GTO launch", so they're going to be replacing those with titanium in the future, which ought to allow the fins to open longer and reduce entry burn fuel use too.

Fairing recovery was tested, with steerable parachutes, and they got at least one of the pieces splashed down intact at the target landing site this time.

They're aiming at a late summer launch for Falcon Heavy, but "6 months until Falcon Heavy" is a joke on the level of "30 years until fusion power" at this point, so who knows if "5 months until Falcon Heavy" is any more realistic. They say they have cores in final preparation, but there were delays from redesign work on the center core, and it sounds like the biggest open question is whether the SLC-40 launch pad repairs will be done in time too.

More customers have agreed to launch on reused stages if available, as many as 6 later this year, maybe 12 next year. Short term it looks like they're getting a mild discount, but the booster is about 75% of the flight cost so that ought to get better. Current design ought to be reusable 10 times before needing any parts replaced; the plan is to do moderate refurbishment to get 100 flights from each core before it's retired.

They're actually looking at upper stage reuse again? I can't imagine how, but if the first stage manufacturing is 75% of their marginal flight cost and the second stage is 24% then I guess it makes sense to try to figure out something.
posted by roystgnr at 8:09 PM on March 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh, and apparently there's talk of "Falcon Heavy two side boosters are being reflown", but I have no idea what that means. They've given up on recovering the center booster for the foreseeable future? The side booster design really remained so similar to Falcon 9 that they can refly landed F9 first stages as FH side boosters? They're recovering all three boosters, but they've only scheduled reflights for the first two side boosters since the center booster recovery is the most experimental? Those are the only interpretations that sound even remotely plausible.
posted by roystgnr at 8:18 PM on March 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

He was talking about the FH demo flight. The centre booster will be a brand new rocket, and the left and right boosters will be reused from earlier flights (so, yes the design is so similar that they can reuse F9 stages for that. I think the centre core is the most different from an F9 stage). All three FH cores will land (2 RTLS, one on the ship).
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 8:24 PM on March 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Elon said that the plan was to direct the fairings to a kind of bouncy castle set up on land, once they prove they can steer it adequately. The fairings cost $6 million, so it would be a good thing to recover. It is really mind-boggling what they have accomplished thus far.
posted by Lame_username at 11:14 AM on March 31, 2017

a kind of bouncy castle set up on land

...what date was it in your timezone when you posted that? 🤔
posted by EndsOfInvention at 2:15 AM on April 1, 2017

The bouncy castle thing isn't a joke, although it/they will be in the ocean. They have demonstrated they can control the descent of the fairings; the problem is they cannot be submerged in water. So they came up with an interesting solution. Land them on a giant inflatable something floating in the sea.
posted by bh at 6:51 AM on April 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

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