NASA considering using used first stages for Dragon cargo launches


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Capitalism in space: With SpaceX’s successful launch on June 3 of a used Dragon cargo capsule to ISS, NASA is now considering using used Falcon 9 first stages for later cargo missions.

“That question has been posed,” Ven Feng, manager of the ISS Transportation Integration Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said during a post-launch press conference Saturday. “We are looking at it,” he added. “We’re evaluating every aspect of it very carefully, and there is no schedule yet when we might go down that path.”

NASA officials made the same kind of cautious statements several years ago when SpaceX proposed flying a used Dragon capsule. In other words, they are going to do it, it just takes the bureaucracy time to mull the idea over and finally accept it.

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6 comments

  • LocalFluff

    NASA has already reused 5 Space Shuttles on 135 launches. And actually intend to reuse its left over spare parts again on the SLS a final couple of times. Reusability of spacecrafts is not a new thing to them. “But they’ll evaluate it very carefully!” And have no schedule for going DOWN the path to orbit…

    They could’ve been a bit more enthusiastic about this now routine accomplishment of the Falcon/Dragon launches. Imagine this attitude on July 20, 1969.

  • Mitch S

    “That question has been posed, we are looking at it, we’re evaluating every aspect of it very carefully, and there is no schedule yet when we might go down that path.”

    That’s the D.C. equivalent to 42 – the perfect answer to everything!

  • diane wilson

    I was listening to the Planetary Society’s latest “Space Policy” podcast today, where they talked at great length about SLS. It was mostly uncritical, noting only that by comparison with Apollo, SLS never had the big initial budget that would enable it to get built in a more timely and cost-effective manner. A number of things really came together in my mind while listening to this.

    First, SLS is a cottage industry, in the most literal sense. It’s a hand-built rocket! With one test flight, before they have to change everything for Block 1B and the new second stage, requiring not just another test flight but years of work on infrastructure to support the larger rocket and additional fueling and other complexities. Who knows whether there will be a third SLS, and if it will be hand-built to new specifications as well?

    By comparison, Apollo did achieve what neither the shuttle nor SLS could possibly do: It almost had an assembly line mentality. After all, they got 15 Saturn V rockets built, of which only 12 were ever used. For Apollo 8 through Apollo 13, they maintained a fairly steady two month launch cadence. They built multiples, spares, and backups of various unmanned spacecraft, and launched them – Viking, Voyager, Pioneer – but after the 1970s, I think this only happened again with the MER rovers. I have zero confidence that NASA will ever do this again. (For that matter, ISS is another hand-built, on-off project.)

    Second, the comparison with SpaceX goes much deeper than most people realize. SpaceX is nothing less than the industrial revolution in launch operations. I read a while back that SpaceX manufactures 300 Merlin engines a year! Some in NASA and the Air Force criticize SpaceX for frequent changes, but between those upgrades, they probably build, and fly, more Merlins than the entire production run of shuttle main engines, or Saturn V F-1s. Cost per unit goes down dramatically with increased production, which is true of everything from paper clips to fighter aircraft. It’s not just manufacturing, though; everything seems to be treated as an industrial process, including logistics, quality assurance (even considering the two failures), launch facilities in multiple locations. SpaceX is all about standardization and automation, and the reliability and repeatability that come with doing something over and over. Their two-week launch cadence is very impressive. So are the F9 landings. As a young company in an aging business, they’ve had to learn quickly, but they’ve learned well.

    During the international transport announcement session, Musk said that he’s in the transportation business. That’s the key phrase: “transportation business.”

    Third, cubesats are doing exactly the same disruptive business process in the satellite business. Standardized chassis, standardized bus, standardized components. Like ULA’s Atlas, they are too dependent on outsiders for key components, but I think that satellite business will get that straightened out. SpaceX has gone the opposite route, making instead of outsourcing, and it has paid off. You don’t outsource something if you can’t afford for it to fail.

  • Anthony Domanico

    If you go back to the CRS-11 prelaunch conference, the NASA manager states that reuse is a big deal and they are looking into using a flight proven booster.

  • wayne

    Yo, Anthony–
    Edward has some good advice, referencing a potential launch-trip to Florida, in the other thread.

    (https://behindtheblack.com/behind-the-black/points-of-information/spacex-successfully-launches-the-first-reused-cargo-dragon/#comment-992058)

  • LocalFluff

    diane wilson
    “I read a while back that SpaceX manufactures 300 Merlin engines a year! “

    Guess how many rocket engines have been developed for SLS. Not one! Not one.
    The most impressive thing with SLS is not that it is the most expensive rocket development project in history. It isn’t even a rocket development! They just move the main engines from the shuttle orbiter to the main tank and put a proven Delta upper stage on top of it. It is a smaller adjustment than from the first Falcon 9 weighing 300 tons on the launchpad to the latest version weighing 500 tons.

    The Soviets designed an SLS as a variant within its shuttle program, already in the 1970s. Energia launched successfully twice, with and without the Buran shuttle. 40 years later NASA tries to copy that, and fails miserably. They should’ve bought Energia/Buran in 1990, if they had wanted a useful space program instead of useless high paying “high tech” jobs converting valuable resources to worthless junk. Learning smart people how to work stupidly.

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