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SpaceX’s next launch and the business of rocket recovery

TechCrunch TechCrunch 26/04/2016 Emily Calandrelli

SpaceX confirmed to TechCrunch that their next launch is scheduled for May 4th at 1:22 am EST with a two-hour launch window. The company is expected to couple the launch with another rocket landing attempt on a drone ship out at sea.

It was less than three weeks ago that SpaceX made their first successful rocket recovery on a drone ship.

That launch, which took place April 8th, delivered supplies to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit (at an altitude of about 250 miles). For the May 4th launch, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 will need to deliver a Japanese communications satellite to an altitude of about 22,000 miles.

Because the launch requirements for this next launch, the accompanied landing attempt will likely be more challenging. In order to reach the significantly higher orbit, the first stage on May 4th will be required to accelerate faster than the first stage on April 8th, which may make a soft landing attempt more cumbersome.

SpaceX currently has two recovered boosters in its possession: one recovered by land in December and one by sea in April. Prior to April’s successful recovery on the Of Course I Still Love You ship, SpaceX had made four unsuccessful landing attempts on drone ships.

Just a few days after the rocket was soft-landed on a drone ship on April 8th, the Falcon 9 booster returned to port for testing.

The recovered booster spent a week getting checked out at Port Canaveral and was then transferred to the SpaceX hanger at Kennedy Space Center (where SpaceX’s other recovered booster was stored) for further inspection.

However, the two recovered first stages will likely have different destinies.

Musk has previously stated that the rocket recovered in December would probably not be re-launched saying “I think we’ll probably keep this one on the ground, just… it’s kind of unique, it’s the first one we’ve brought back.”

That second recovered rocket, though, may have a chance to fly again.

Over Twitter, Musk stated that they hope to relaunch a recovered rocket in three to four months assuming all tests go well.

Reusing a recovered rocket will mark the next important rocket reusability milestone for SpaceX. As Musk’s company becomes closer to making this happen, some have started to look more closely at what this will ultimately mean in terms of cost savings.

Will a ride on a used rocket end up costing a customer less than a ride with a new rocket?

In March at the SATELLITE 2016 conference, Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX, joked that perhaps a recovered rocket should cost more since it had already been flight tested. She later clarified and emphasized that they would not charge more for recovered rockets.

Musk has previously stated that the first stage of a Falcon 9 accounts for 75 percent of its total price tag, which is why SpaceX has worked so hard to recover it.

However, a recovered rocket requires some level of refurbishing which will accrue a certain cost.

Shotwell has said that, with all things considered, the company expected a 30 percent cost savings by reusing the Falcon 9 first stage. Today, the advertised price of a Falcon 9 is $61.2 million. Assuming that savings would be passed on to the customer, the price of a Falcon 9 with a reused first stage could drop to $42.84 million.

By going further and recovering the second stage of the Falcon 9 the cost of a launch could be reduced even more.

But before that stage of rocket recovery begins, SpaceX will need to master first stage landings. Come May 4th, we’ll get another chance to see if Musk and company can stick the landing.

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