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Recovered Falcon 9 first stage undamaged

Recovered Falcon 9 first stage

The competition heats up: In an Instagram post, Elon Musk has revealed that the Falcon 9 first stage that successfully landed vertically after launch is in its hanger and is essentially undamaged.

Elon Musk: “Falcon 9 back in the hangar at Cape Canaveral. No damage found, ready to fire again.”

Musk’s post included a higher resolution version of the picture on the right, showing a close-up of the stage near its top. This image reveals that, despite some minor paint damage and dirt, this section of the stage does appear whole and ready to go. Even the landing fins are folded and appear undamaged.

Musk’s post also suggests that the stage is ready for its first post-launch test firing, which underlines how unique this opportunity is. No one has ever had a functioning first stage available for testing after it had been launched and returned to Earth. Past assumptions (an important word) have always said that the stress of launch would damage it enough that it wouldn’t be cost effect to reuse it. SpaceX’s engineers now will have an opportunity to find out if that assumption was true or false. I strongly suspect they will find that this assumption was false, that it was used as a bugaboo by the small-minded to discourage just this kind of effort by SpaceX.

This article notes that Musk has previously said it costs $60 million to build the first stage, but only $200K to refuel it. Since SpaceX says it charges about $70 million per launch, that first stage is most of SpaceX’s cost for each launch. If the stage can reused later, the cost of later launches will thus plummet incredibly. Assume they can only reuse the stage once. Amortized over only two launches the cost is still cut by almost half. More importantly, the ability to reuse will be an incentive for them to build the stage right the first time, so that it can be reused multiple times.

I repeat: The importance of this breakthrough has not yet sunk in. It is going to change the entire aerospace industry and everything we do in space.

Update: I have corrected the post above, which originally incorrectly stated that the picture showed the stage near its base.

Conscious Choice cover

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  • Dick Eagleson

    The picture is actually from near the top of the recovered 1st stage, not the bottom. Two of the grid fins are prominent as well as a small blister that may be one of the cold gas thruster units.

    I suspect you are correct about the non-existence or triviality of overall “damage” to the stage. I had earlier speculated that the greyish tinge of the upper and lower thirds of the stage was due to burning of the paint, but this closeup view makes it look to be mainly a coating of soot. The paint on the stage’s sides looks a lot more intact than I expected it to. The paint on the grid fins looks worse as one would expect as they are deployed directly into the teeth of the hypersonic slipstream beyond the boundary layer. The presence of engine soot all the way up the booster stage exterior suggests that the engine exhaust gases generated when three Merlin 1-D’s are re-lit for the re-entry burn form a comparatively cool envelope around the entire length of the stage and prevent the ambient atmosphere at hypersonic stagnation temperature from ever impinging directly on any part of the stage’s structure. This also suggests that speculations I have seen in other venues about the possible “de-tempering” or “de-heat-treating” of the booster stage’s metal components during re-entry are baseless.

    In short, it looks like prep for re-use will consist mainly of a pressure wash and paint touch-up. SpaceX may already be designing a 1st-stage “car wash” to automate much of this work.

    Small wonder NASA is so interested in the data SpaceX derives from these booster flybacks/re-entries. Hypersonic re-entry into the thin upper atmosphere of Earth looks to be quite a good model for the engineering of future large Mars landers.

  • Thanks for the correction. I have revised the post accordingly.

  • geoffc

    How many F9 landings will it take, before SpaceX has more accumulated hypersonic flight time than any other program?

    What a nice side benefit.

  • PeterF

    I expect that careful inspection will result in several improvements/refinements that will result in a completely reusable and durable booster. Resembling an airliner more than the space shuttle ever could.

  • Wodun

    One thing to keep in mind, is that $60m is for the whole rocket, not just the first stage. I was told that Musk said the cost of the first stage was about 70%, which makes reusing the first stage more beneficial. To me, it looks like SpaceX will need to drastically increase its launch rate before they can lower prices much but even small savings are in the millions of dollars, which adds up over time.

  • wodun

    Actually, I take that back. They don’t need a drastic increase in flight rates. I put the numbers in a spreadsheet and it takes about four launches before the cost per launch is cut in half. My assumptions were $70m price, $60m cost, 70% of cost for first stage, the cost of first stage shared by number of launches, $1m refurbishing, and the same stage used for all launches.

    With these assumptions, I used the number of launches for the last two years and SpaceX would have saved $144m in 2014 and $179m in 2015.

    The big savings start to taper off after the 20th launch going from in the hundreds of thousands in saving to the tens of thousands. It would take 42 launches to bring the cost per launch down to $20m but the 100th launch would cost $19.42m

    But this was just the simplest analysis and those numbers are based on my assumptions which are not accurate in the real world.

  • Michael

    I foresee a shortage of crows

  • pzatchok

    Didn’t NASA ever recover their first stages and see that the paint was never burned off like it would be in a high temp re-entry?

    The difference between paint burning off and re annealing or heat treating of metals is quite a bit even for aluminum sheets (650-800deg) making up the outside of the rocket.

    I normally use for all my metalwork. They are cheap and work great.

    If SpaceX wants to know almost exactly what the temp is for any spot on the rocket they can just tag a grid of these marks bracketing the expected temp and they will get within 1% or so of actual temp. Up to about 2500deg.

    The only temp problems should be on the super high temp engine parts and if they can’t take the temp of launch they shouldn’t be used more than once, if at all.

  • Frank

    All the trustworthy spacecraft in Star Wars are covered with smudges, soot and surface oxidation to the point where they look like railroad trains.

    Don’t forget, SpaceX has considerable time with Grasshopper and I’m sure gained experience with this “soot”.

  • wodun

    If anyone wants to mess around with a spreadsheet, here is the simple one I made,

    Anything in yellow can be changed. I probably will notice a really stupid error in the morning.

  • Edward


    Your spreadsheet is quite telling, despite any “really stupid errors” you may have made. Despite the dramatic improvement due to the cost of the reusable first stage, the cost of the second stage keeps the overall cost-to-orbit rather high, only about 1/3 the one-use cost. This would explain why Musk has mentioned a desire to make a reusable upper stage and why others would like a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle or are proposing to return and reuse only the (expensive) engines. The less hardware that is thrown away after each use, the less expensive the cost to orbit.

    It also shows that the payload cost to orbit starts looking asymptotic after about 10 reuses (diminishing returns), and the cost of the first stage starts looking asymptotic after about 20 launches. Thus, even if a stage can only be used a limited number of times (e.g. 10 or 20), much of the savings we could expect of an infinitely reusable stage have already been obtained, meaning that the hardware does not have to last for hundreds or thousands of launches in order for it to save a lot of money.

    We can also see that this is not an evolutionary (read: “incremental”) improvement in rocketry but a revolutionary improvement. Both SpaceX and Blue Origin should save a lot of money and become significantly more efficient than traditional competitions. (Blue Origin’s scientific payload competition is the one-use sounding rocket, but their manned-space competition, Virgin Galactic and XCOR, already intend to reuse their hardware for similar savings.)

    Thank you for putting this together and sharing it.

  • blarg

    Not sure if it even costs 60 million for a rocket, i’ve seen a number of 16 million.

    Reusable second stage is only a matter of time as well.
    Fully reusable rockets in maybe 5 years.

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