SpaceX to display recovered first stage

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The competition heats up: Rather than re-fly it, Elon Musk suggested today that, after some testing, SpaceX will likely put its first recovered Falcon 9 first stage on display instead.

“[We will] do a static fire at the launch pad there, to confirm that all systems are good and that we are able to do a full thrust hold-down firing of the rocket,” Musk said after the stage landed. The static fire will also test the modifications SpaceX has made to Pad 39A to support its rockets.

After that though, the stage will become a display piece. “I think we will keep this one on the ground for tests that prove it could fly again and then put it somewhere — just because it is quite unique,” Musk said.

Since they already have a satellite company, SES, willing to buy that first stage, this only underlines how this last Falcon 9 launch changes everything. Nor do I think this change has sunk in with most people yet. The last launch was not a one-time event. SpaceX’s intends to recover as many of its first stages as it can in all future launches. Their Falcon 9 first stage is no longer expendable. Thus, they can afford to put this first recovered stage on display because they expect all future first stages to fly again.


  • geoffc

    In the short term, if all goes well, they are going to have a whole stack of used first stages before they are ready to refly one. Even if they take 6 months before trying a reflight, they potentially could have 6-7 cores waiting by then.

    You can’t have everything, where would you put it?

    Can you imagine a SpaceX rocket farm in McGregor? The rocket cows will have new pillars in their sky.

  • pzatchok

    I expected this.

    they have placed all their”firsts” on display so far, why not this one?

    The fact they are willing to risk its possible destruction by actually test firing it again tells me they still are hot on the reuse goal.

    The next few will more than likely be relaunched with dummy payloads and or used to test the manned capsules landing and reentry ability.

    SpaceX seems to like stacking tests all into one launch.

    The first stage is nowhere close to being fully reusable.
    They need to find out whats broke and how to keep it from breaking.
    They need to find out what needs rebuilt and or replaced because its only a one use part.
    Then they need to rework the whole thing to make it ready for relaunch in 30 days or less.

    Plus you have to have time for all the ground crew teams to workout, learn and train for the new jobs.
    Just that list is huge.
    Think of it like a race team. Just how fast can they get that car ready for the next race? During the racing season its anywhere from a day to a week depending on the damage.

  • Mitch S.

    I suppose the numbers work out but I’m still curious about the economics of this.
    They can’t just reuse these stages, there’s a lot of expensive labor involved.
    Sure they recover materials, but then why not have the stage parachute into the water like the shuttle boosters? (and not have to carry extra fuel for landing)
    Often it’s cheaper to tear down an old house rather than restoring it.

  • The shuttle boosters were never really reusable. They reused parts, but the amount of refurbishing required after being in the ocean made the whole process generally inefficient. SpaceX discovered this as well when they tried to recover their first stage from the ocean. The damage from salt water made the engines essentially unusable.

    Having the first stage land vertically on land means that the first stage and its engines — its most valuable part — are basically returned undamaged. What is the negative to this? I can’t see any. Granted the stages will require careful checking, but if they have been built with reuse in mind they will certainly be in good enough condition for reuse.

  • Edward


    Good video and comparison. The second example seems a little unfair, as there was no refueling, but the “knockoff” nut in the first example demonstrated that a 1950s advancement still needed some improvement.

    Mitch S,

    The economic model is more like an airliner, reusing each aircraft for many flights with brief turnaround times, rather than buy an aircraft for each flight. If you have ever remained aboard an airliner during an intermediate stop, you know that the layover time is half an hour or so. Launch vehicles will probably never be that efficient, because payload installation and refueling take more time, but as with the race car team, shorter turnaround times are essential to staying ahead of the competition. With experience, rocket builders will discover which parts are not lasting long enough and will figure out how to get them to last longer, and parts that can’t last longer will have to be quickly replaceable (as with the Formula I’s tires).

    The economics and labor involved may be like pre-1950s race-cars, right now (before knock-off nuts, which reduced the time needed to replace tires), but the competing companies have great incentive to improve the turnaround times and reusability of every aspect of their rockets. The important thing is to get the concept started so that the lessons learned and improvements can commence.

    In pzatchok’s race-car example, the time required to change tires dropped from a minute down to three seconds(!). They improved the knock-off nut and the processes, including adding more pit crew members, and treating the process like its own race. Notice the body positions of the pit crew as they prepare for the car’s arrival — and the guy removing a couple of pieces of foreign object debris.


    So far, SpaceX only can recover rockets that launch payloads into low Earth orbit, not into Geostationary Earth orbits (GEO). This means that these (early, reusable) rockets might be reused a small number of times or even reused only once — for a GEO orbit — and either expended into the ocean or landed onto a barge for continued inspection for hardware and process improvement. As processes, engine efficiency, and abilities improve, I expect that reusability will extend to the GEO payloads as well. That is when we will see another dramatic improvement in the cost of getting to space.

    In the mean time, testing, experimenting, and improving the rockets, engines, and processes will continue.

    Robert’s comment on the salt water damage shows that landing on a barge is not quite the long-term solution that we had thought it would be. I was hopeful that barge landings would keep the GEO launches reusable. As it is, there is not enough left over propellant to come back to land, and there may not be enough (yet) to land on a barge, either, for GEO launches. It seems as though an important improvement will be protection from salt water damage of the engines and other flight hardware.

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