(Bloomberg) -- The next launch by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. appears almost routine by now: A satellite owned by Bangladesh will blast toward orbit on top of a reusable Falcon 9 rocket, then the booster will land back on a drone ship to be launched again at a later date. SpaceX has already done this 24 times.
But Friday will mark the debut of a new-and-improved version of the rocket, called Falcon 9 Block 5, that SpaceX crafted to be capable of rapidly getting sent back into space. It’ll be able to handle 10 or more flights with limited refurbishment, according to the company. Within the next year, Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk wants to fly the same vehicle twice within a 24-hour period.
Block 5 is the latest—and final—major upgrade by SpaceX to its workhorse Falcon 9. Musk described some of the changes on a call with reporters Thursday: more powerful engines, with an 8 percent increase in thrust; a stronger heat shield for the trip back through Earth's atmosphere; a black “interstage” that joins the upper and lower stages of the rocket; and new retractable landing legs.
“SpaceX will launch more rockets than any other country in 2018,” Musk said during the call, hours before the company postponed the first mission involving its updated Falcon 9 by a day. “One of the biggest goals of Block 5 is ease of reusability.”
Frequent upgrades are common across Musk’s big products. At Tesla Inc., customers receive over-the-air software updates to the electric vehicles sitting in their driveways—something other automakers have been slow to offer. The engineers at SpaceX are likewise engaged in tweaks to their rockets. Each launch of the Falcon 9—along with the two dozen boosters now recovered—has given SpaceX insight into performance against the intense environment of space. This data helps improve the next iteration of the rocket.
The steady stream of technical improvements helps bolster the business model. “The big breakthrough of Block 5 is it represents a new generation of design that they plan to re-fly 10 times,” said Luigi Peluso, an aerospace and defense consultant at AlixPartners. “That’s enormous from an economic perspective.”
The current cost of a Falcon 9 launch is roughly $62 million, according to SpaceX’s website. Greg Autry, a professor at the University of Southern California and a former NASA liaison to the White House, estimates that the booster accounts for roughly $35 million of the total cost. Flying more regularly will allow SpaceX to lower costs.
“If they can build a rocket that good, all they need to do is add fuel,” Autry said. “They don’t need to pass the savings on to customers, because their launch manifest is already full. Right now, SpaceX has data on boosters that have flown once or twice. They are probably being conservative when they say 10.”
There’s another imperative beyond bringing down costs. Boeing Co. and SpaceX have contracts with NASA to ferry American astronauts for the first time since the Space Shuttle program went dark in 2011, and each company needs to complete a flurry of tests over the coming months. SpaceX is slated to launch an un-crewed demonstration mission to the International Space Station, as well as an in-flight abort test, which is meant to show how the crew compartment can safely pull away from the rocket in an emergency. Those milestones are prerequisites for the first test flight with a human crew.
But before NASA will allow SpaceX to fly astronauts, the agency wants to see that Block 5 can fly, repeatedly, with no issues. “NASA will require seven successful flights,” said Cheryl Warner, a spokeswoman for the agency. “In human spaceflight, demonstration ‘testing like we fly’ is a long standing tenet for safe operations and understanding of critical systems.”
Boeing is also going through extensive testing. The next major hurdle for the company is a pad abort test, which NASA says is currently targeted for July at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. This test will show that the Boeing system can safely lift astronauts away from danger in the event of a launch emergency.
SpaceX probably won't be ready to fly humans by late 2019, followed by Boeing in early 2020, the Government Accountability Office said earlier this month. The congressional watchdog cited Block 5 certification and cracking in the Falcon 9 engine turbine as hurdles for SpaceX. Boeing faces concerns that its heat shield design could damage the craft during re-entry to Earth's atmosphere.
SpaceX flew a record 18 launches in 2017, and Musk said the company is on track to double that rate this year. The Friday launch window opens at 4:14 p.m. local time in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and will be the ninth so far in 2018. The company plans to land the first stage on its drone ship named “Of Course I Still Love You.”
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