SpaceX using up old used boosters as it shifts to final Falcon 9 design


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Capitalism in space: As SpaceX prepares to introduce its final Falcon 9 design, dubbed Block 5, it also plans to use up its stock of old used boosters, with four of the six launches scheduled through the end of April using previously flown boosters.

The article’s review of SpaceX’s stock suggests that the company will only have two used boosters after these launches. It also notes that the company appears to have decided that these earlier Falcon 9 designs can only fly two or three times safely, and that it will be the Block 5 final design that they hope will finally be the booster that can fly repeatedly and reliably.

Since NASA won’t let astronauts fly on anything other than Block 5, and insists it fly at least seven times successfully before the agency will allow its astronauts on it, SpaceX has a lot at stake with this final design. If it has problems, the company will be in trouble. If not, the company will cement the dominate position it presently holds in the launch industry.

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7 comments

  • geoffc

    Hmm… 7 launches on a static config, that previous versions have already launched 50 times, and probably 70 by the time they fly manned?

    What about Atlas? The CST needs a 2 engine Centaur upper stage, which has not flown in decades, and it will be a different config than the decades old model.

    Sounds fair and consistent.

  • wodun

    The FH launch used Block 2 cores and they were retired after the launch. Of the seven active cores, all are Block 4 except for the one Block 5 mentioned at the link.

    While more than a little hard to believe, this series of launches over the next 4-6 weeks may see SpaceX’s fleet of flight-proven boosters shrink to no more than two flightworthy cores – perhaps just a single Falcon 9.

    It looks like the next FH launch will use Block 5 cores.

  • Richard M

    I think NASA would have been content to fly Dragon 2 on Block 3 or 4, so long as the 2nd stage helium tank issue was resolved. But since SpaceX wanted to move on to Block 5, that’s what they had to employ in their decisions.

    To be fair to NASA, the alternative means of certification were in theory available to Boeing and SpaceX: Fly your booster multiple times, or follow a process which involves a crap ton of testing and documentation. SpaceX knew its cadence was so high that it was easier and cheaper just to opt for the certification flights. For Boeing/ULA, which has always been adept at paperwork, the latter option was easier – it has no other uses for the Dual Centaur. Any test flights it did would be on its own dime.

    All that said, I think 7 flights is excessive, especially for a booster with a long and successful heritage behind it now. I get that NASA has less insight into those rockets since it does not operate them, but….I mean, really. 7 flights? Titan II GLV flew only two test launches before it flew Gemini manned capsules. Saturn V flew only 2 test launches. Saturn 1B flew 4 times (mostly for purposes of testing the Apollo CSM andn LM). The Shuttle flew ZERO times. NASA may have had “go fever” in ages past, but it has become a very risk averge organization today.

  • Anthony Domanico

    Richard M,

    Boeing/ULA adept at paperwork, solid burn, ouch. Ha ha I don’t know if that was intended as a zing but I’m interpreting it as such. Your comment about NASA becoming a risk averse organization makes me wonder, is NASA risk averse or are we becoming a risk averse society and therefore by default NASA is too? Unfortunately, I think it’s the latter which is even harder to fix. Plus, a lot of those human space flight programs you referenced were in the context of the Cold War and the Soviet Union had superior rockets so risks were more palatable by the general public.

  • David

    quote: It also notes that the company appears to have decided that these earlier Falcon 9 designs can only fly two or three times safely

    Perhaps, but maybe the cost/time of refurb and turnaround for block 5 is so much less it doesn’t make economic sense to fly the old hardware.

  • Kirk

    I’ve wondered if reflights count toward the seven flights required before the first crewed flight — that is, do they want to see Block 5 boosters fly seven times, or do they want to see seven Block 5 boosters fly.

    The first Block 5 booster — core 1046 — will loft the Bangabandhu satellite sometime in April. It has completed its hot fire testing in McGregor, Texas, and is about to be shipped to the Cape.

    Yesterday, Commercial Crew updates revealed that DM–1, the unmanned Crew Dragon demo mission, will fly on core 1051, the sixth Block 5 core. With four months scheduled between DM-1 and DM-2, SpaceX shouldn’t have any problem producing two more Block 5 cores, allowing DM-2 to fly on the eighth Block 5 core. One of these early cores is a Falcon Heavy center core (FH STP-2 is scheduled for July, and will be all Block 5, likely using pre-flown side boosters), so if the center core, due to its differences, doesn’t count toward the seven required flights, then perhaps DM-2 will need to be on the ninth (or later) Block V core.

    It’s likely that counting reflights vs. first flights and FH center core vs. standard boosters won’t matter as the requirements will be satisfied either way given SpaceX’s heavy schedule, but it could be close.

  • Kirk

    Here is Eric Berger’s tweet of the NASA slide indicating that DM-1 will fly on core 1051. A few tweets later he says “So after the commercial crew briefing at the NASA advisory council, it seems clear that Kathy Lueders has low confidence in crew flights this year. (Which we’ve been reporting for awhile).” In the responses he tweets that he thinks there is only a 50-50 chance that either crew capsule will fly unmanned by the end of the year.

    https://twitter.com/SciGuySpace/status/978335789309407232

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