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SpaceX launches using its second Falcon 9 first stage on its sixteenth flight

SpaceX tonight successfully launched 54 Starlink satellites into orbit, lifting off from Cape Canaveral.

The Falcon 9 rocket used a first stage flying on its sixteenth flight, landing successfully on a drone ship in the Atlantic. That is the second 1st stage in SpaceX’s fleet to complete that many flights. Both first stages completed their sixteen flights in only three years, which means that those two first stages have actually flown more times than the entire United States rocket industry did annually from 2000 to 2019. I don’t have a full count, but I suspect both stages have launched in those three years more satellites then the totals for almost all other nations, excepting possibly Russia and the U.S. Both probably allowed SpaceX to amortize the cost of those launches considerably, possibly as much as 90%.

Just remember: Rocket industry experts were insisting even as late as 2016 that it was impractical to make rocket stages reusable, that to make a profit “a partially reusable rocket would need to launch 35-40 times per year to maintain a sizable production facility while introducing reused hardware into the manifest.” Based on that calculation, these experts determined with utmost certainty that a partly reusable rocket — like the Falcon 9 — could never make a profit.

Elon Musk must have agreed, and decided he needed an extra profit center for the Falcon 9. Starlink has provided that profit center. It not only needs that many launches, and pays for them, its profit stream from its internet customers is already adding to SpaceX’s bottom line.

Regardless, Musk has proved these “experts” utterly wrong. I always thought they were talking through their hat, but had no way to prove it. Thank you Mr. Musk for proving the point.

Note too that the two fairing halves on this flight were also reused, completing their ninth and tenth flights respectively.

The leaders in the 2023 launch race:

47 SpaceX
26 China
9 Russia
5 Rocket Lab
5 India

American private enterprise now leads China in successful launches 53 to 26, and the entire world combined 53 to 45, while SpaceX alone now leads the rest of the world (excluding other American companies) 47 to 45.

And it is doing this with that impractical, unprofitable, and impossible reusable Falcon 9 rocket. Heh.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.


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  • pzatchok

    Remember that all those ‘experts’ were going off of the Shuttle program example.

    A total engine replacement for every flight.
    A total heat shield replacement.
    and nothing can be done inside any realistic timeline.

    And 10 thousand employees to keep working.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Yes, the concept of “partially” reusable had to be refined to be practical. Instead of meaning reusable after extensive refurbishment or rebuild, SpaceX reuses the whole booster as an independent unit from the second stage that is more integrated with the payload.

    The fairings are a unique case of a component that almost re-enters by itself without modification – dumb reusability.

    Contrast ULA’s “SMART” reusability – an acronym that combines a set of vacuously positive terms like Simple, Modular etc. that really add up to a complex idea, one that includes major overhead components like an inflatable heat shield for the (now detachable) engines, while still throwing away the hull of the booster!

    SpaceX uses the whole booster hull with retainable additions like fins and legs to act as a re-entry shield, relying on the fact that the engine bells are built to withstand bazillions of units of heat and thrust anyway!

  • MDN

    All true, but the legacy “Experts” failed to recognize the shift now occurring in the satellite market that generates the launch demand too. And that is what really drives the economics as Bob pointed out.

    The legacy world thought of satellites as big and expensive and precious assets designed to last 15-20 years or more. Elon recognized that most of them are really closely entangled with Moore’s Law which has made computing faster and cheaper exponentially. And THAT enabled the shift from monster Platinum Bullet class platforms to Swarms of low cost HIGH VOLUME platforms instead. And that volume makes applying MASS PRODUCTION techniques to thr launch vehicle possible too which in turn drives the price down further.

    StarLink was the killer app that opened the door, but now that the Falcon 9 exists it has simply obsoleted most all competition just as the Model T did to bespoke car manufacturers a century ago. And anyone looking to copy Falcon 9 are shooting behind the duck because by the time they get there Starship will have obsoleted that model. Full quick turn reusability is the objective. now and anyone not shooting for that is simply destined to be a loser.

    So the Legacy space players (as well as Blue Origins which Bezos ironically transitioned from the fast and nimble commercial to staid dinosaur business model) are all toast, and therein lies the biggest risk to Musk and SpaceX. Not because these dinosaurs can or will out innovate him, but simply because they know they are extinct and will exploit whatever “Legacy” stature and political influence they have to Rent Seek to smother SpaceX via regulation.

    But there is a limited window of opportunity to do that without looking quite the fool, and as soon as Starship achieves orbit and a successful landing or two for both stages (even with 3 or more catastrophic failures along the way) that window will close with a thud.

    So Bob has good reason to keep warning of regulatory slow walking of the Starship test program because the long knives are out. The only good news is that they are being wielded by the likes of Boeing, ULA, and Blue Origin who have been busy publicly lopping off their own fingers with their own flagship programs which can’t even replicate Apollo era capabilities as yet, much less match SpaceX.

  • GeorgeC

    Crazy science fiction inspired plot element. but that inflatimg heat shield thing might make a great emergency exit pod. But maybe it has already been done (in fiction). Imagine the ride surfs up.

  • Diane Wilson

    Worth noting that SpaceX has completed 92 launches of Starlink satellites, and should hit 100 Starlink launches around September.

    There is one class of missions that Starship will not obsolete, and that is smallsat launches. Falcon 9 has been a dominant factor in that market as well, and I really can’t see Starship in that role.

    One role for Starship that I haven’t seen mentioned is launching solar power satellites to beam power back to earth. I don’t know whether that will ever be practical, but a podcast on the subject some years back noted that one of the biggest obstacles in that area was simply launch capacity for lifting hundreds of tons to orbit. And that was hundreds of tons per solar power satellite.

  • David Eastman

    “I don’t have a full count, but I suspect both stages have launched in those three years more satellites then the totals for almost all other nations, excepting possibly Russia and the U.S” It was actually pointed out in the Ars Technica article discussing the first booster to hit 16 flights that that single booster had almost matched ULA’s total lifetime delivery of satellites to orbit. I would not be surprised to learn that the two of them combined have exceeded even Russia at this point.

  • David Eastman: No, there is no chance these two boosters have matched Russia, at least not in the same way. Russia/Soviet Union routinely launched 100+ times per year prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, and the pace only dropped below half that in the past decade. It has put up a lot of satellites over time.

  • Mike Borgelt

    “Crazy science fiction inspired plot element. but that inflatimg heat shield thing might make a great emergency exit pod. But maybe it has already been done (in fiction). Imagine the ride surfs up.”

    Allen Steel “Lunar Descent”.

  • Col Beausabre

    Has SpaceX published an anticipated life of its boosters?

  • Mitch S.

    “Crazy science fiction inspired plot element. but that inflating heat shield thing might make a great emergency exit pod. But maybe it has already been done (in fiction). Imagine the ride surfs up.”

    The movie Dark Star came to mind

  • Jeff Wright

    I’ve often thought wet workshops were like reusable first stages…it just needs a billionaire of its own to prove people wrong.

    Falcon is an archetype…a statue lifted from the sea floor that needed uncovering.

    Starship is a block of stone at this point…it’s going to take work turning “the monster” into David.

  • MDN

    Diane, I’m afraid I disagree on both counts. As the Falcon 9 still “expends” its upper stage’ (save for the fairings) it is still quite costly to launch. That is an entire air frame, engine, and avionics package expended for each and every mission. Thus, assuming Starship achieves its objective of FULL and LOW TOUCH reusability a la a commercial aircraft, insane as it seems it will be far more cost effective even for cube sats. The only exception would likely be for missions requiring a very specific launch day/time or orbital profile that Starship for some reason might not meet.

    As far as building stations in space to “beam” power down to Earth I just don’t see this happening. Yes, it IS completely feasible and with Starship likely even practical. But we are talking about a HIGH ENERGY beam here which while intended for peaceful purposes is vulnerable to perversion into a true weapon of mass destruction if misused a la a James Bond movie. So for that reason I expect such platforms will be a pretty hard sell for the foreseeable future. And if they do build them inevitably there will be some accidental or intentional carnage at some point because nothing is perfect and people get lazy. Just think Bhopal India or East Palestine Ohio for example.

  • Edward

    Regardless, Musk has proved these “experts” utterly wrong. I always thought they were talking through their hat, but had no way to prove it. Thank you Mr. Musk for proving the point.

    As pzatchok noted, these “experts” had evidence to back up their assertions. The Space Shuttle’s Solid Rocket Boosters and its liquid fueled engines cost a fortune to refurbish between launches.

    The nay-saying “experts” were not bothered to try to improve on the Space Shuttle’s success at proving that engines can be reused and all that was needed was better endurance for multiple uses between major overhauls. They merely declared it impossible and left it at that. This is what happens when you let government be in charge.

    Fortunately, we have engineers who accept the challenge of doing the impossible.

  • Star Bird

    Sounds like a Secret Code or Password

  • pzatchok

    I am sure that the Falcon 9 second stage is not as expensive as people think.

    One Merlin engine.
    Two fuel tanks. Size determined by the mission.
    One electronics control system, more than likely the same for all three types. Passenger and Cargo Dragon and satellite release. Why design a new one for each mission?
    Two different structures. Satellite and Dragon. Anything else would be custom to the specific mission.

    And everything paid for by the customer.

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