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The competition heats up: SpaceX on Tuesday revealed that last week it has completed the standard static fire testing of the recovered Falcon 9 first stage that it plans to relaunch in March.
A March launch would mean an 11-month turnaround, which is far from optimal, but understandable for the first time. SpaceX’s founder and chief executive, Elon Musk, has acknowledged the company must do better in the future if resuable flight is to become economically viable. He says the next—and likely final—iteration of the Falcon 9 rocket will be optimized for reuse. “Block 5 is the final upgrade of the Falcon architecture,” he tweeted earlier this year. “Significantly improves performance & ease of reusability. Flies end of year.”
It now seems likely that SpaceX will fly the landed boosters it currently has, at most once or twice, before retiring them, instead of multiple times. Although the company hasn’t elaborated on the problems with the engines, booster structure, or composite materials that have shown wear and tear after their orbital launches and returns, Musk is confident that changes to the Block 5 version of the rocket will solve the problem. “I think the F9 boosters could be used almost indefinitely, so long as there is scheduled maintenance and careful inspections,” he has said.
In other words, SpaceX has had — for the first time in history — the opportunity to inspect a number of used first stage rockets, and that precious knowledge is making it possible for them to upgrade the stage design to make future stages more hardy. In fact, those future stages won’t be stages, but reusable vessels that SpaceX could even name if it wished.