Environment & Science

SpaceX finds first customer for reusable rocket

The SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft lift off on the CRS-9 mission to bring a new docking adapter and other cargo to the International Space Station.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft lift off on the CRS-9 mission to bring a new docking adapter and other cargo to the International Space Station.
Frank Michaux/NASA

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SES, a satellite operator, will entrust SpaceX with delivering one of their products to orbit in the coming months, which isn't unusual. What's surprising is that for the first time, it'll be done on a rocket that's already been used once to deliver a payload into space. 

Usually, after they're used, the rockets are dumped into the ocean, but that's an expensive proposition.  One of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets is estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars, so reusing them could save the company and customers a lot of cash. 

"Re-launching a rocket that has already delivered spacecraft to orbit is an important milestone on the path to complete and rapid reusability," said Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, in a press release. And that's something that companies like SES are looking for.

"Improvements in price points and improvement in timing are important," especially since the company launches as many as 4 satellites into orbit each year, said Markus Payer, a spokesperson from SES.

The company is reliant on launch providers to get their satellites into space, which can sometimes take several months. Payer explained that if SpaceX can make the process quick and reliable, it'll help them shave both time and money off their launches, which can cost between $200 million to $300 million dollars.

SpaceX hasn't been recovering reusable rockets successfully for very long. December 2015 was the first time that they managed to do so. That means SpaceX has had no more than  eight months to recondition its first recovered rocket. 

"Outer space is a very hazardous environment. And the launch process is a particularly challenging phenomenon," said Dirk Gibson, a professor at the University of New Mexico who studies the private space sector. "When you launch a rocket that is equivalent to the energy of the sun for a period of time. And anytime you have a machine...that's subject to those kind of stresses, there's going to be extraordinary potential for damage. So, just making sure that everything is fine. That all of the supports are supporting and all of the material is maintaining its intrinsic strength, those aren't things that you can take for granted."

Greg Autry, a professor at USC's Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, told KPCC last December that reconditioning a used rocket for a subsequent launch is a pains-taking process. 

"Space X will have to go through and take a very close look a the structure to make sure that the welds are secure, that there is no stress on the metal that might create a failure with this vehicle," Autry said. 

He explained that SpaceX will also need check the engines, the pumps and pretty much every other part, all of which can cut into cost savings. NASA's Space Shuttle, for instance, cost millions of dollars to refurbish after each flight.

"That's not something SpaceX wants to do," Autry said. 

And University of New Mexico's Dirk Gibson said it's not something you want to get wrong. "Under the the forces of launch or of space things just come apart, and it could just disintegrate," he said. "It could just explode."

When asked whether, given the cost of the payload, it's worth gambling on SpaceX and their reusable rockets, Payer with SES said, "We apply exactly the same criteria...that we would apply to other launches that we would to this one...We achieve the same level of detail and checks that allow us hopefully to give the greenlight for launch."