SpaceX has crushed its commercial Falcon 9 reuse record with the successful December 13th launch of Sirius XM’s newest radio satellite while simultaneously debuting fairing reuse on customer missions.
Weighing around 7 metric tons (~15,400 lb) at liftoff, the SXM-7 spacecraft was carried aloft by Falcon 9 booster B1051, marking the rocket’s seventh successful launch and landing and the first time SpaceX has used a four-flight, five-flight, or six-flight booster on a non-Starlink mission.
The willingness of customers Maxar and Sirius XM exemplify a major secondary benefit of SpaceX’s internal Starlink satellite constellation launches, 14 of which the company has completed in 2020 alone. With such a huge number of largely 100%-internal launches, SpaceX has been able to rapidly push the envelope of Falcon 9 reuse, flying boosters on their sixth and seventh missions for the first time. In 2020, despite debuting four new boosters, that wealth of Starlink opportunities has meant that the average booster supporting each of SpaceX’s 25 launches (thus) far completed 3.5 flights.
Thanks to the sheer number of internal launch opportunities SpaceX has available, the company has been able to extensively demonstrate the reliability of new levels of Falcon 9 reuse. In other words, while Sirius XM and Maxar are the first commercial customers to fly a payload on a Falcon 9 booster’s seventh launch, SpaceX had already successfully launched and landed several Falcon 9 boosters for the fifth and sixth time – and one for the seventh time just weeks prior – before the commercial debut.
The same is even more true with fairing reuse, as SXM-7 marked SpaceX’s first commercial Falcon fairing half reuse ever despite the fact that the SXM-7 was also the company’s 14th fairing half reuse overall. At this point in time, SpaceX is unequivocally the only company on Earth performing what amount to operational orbital-class flight tests. With such extensive full-fidelity flight test data available, convincing commercial customers of the viability of flight-proven hardware is likely a dramatically easier task.
That foreknowledge also likely allows SpaceX to confidently offer or negotiate discounts with customers willing to be the first non-Starlink payload to use an nth-flight booster or fairing. For example for the reuse of a single fairing half alone, costing around $2.5 million for SpaceX to replace, the company probably offering Sirus XM and Maxar a discount of $500,000-$1,000,000+ and had the flight data on hand to prove that reusing a fairing half caught at sea wouldn’t add an appreciable risk of mission failure or satellite contamination.
For being the first customer to launch on a six-flight Falcon 9 booster, Sirius XM likely received an even more substantial discount of $5-10 million. SpaceX – believed to have an internal Starlink launch cost of $15M or less excluding satellite production – almost certainly still secured a profit despite offering what is likely the lowest launch cost in the world for a multi-ton geostationary satellite by a large margin.
Meanwhile, thanks to B1051’s seventh successful landing, SpaceX has two seven-flight Falcon boosters it can use to push the envelope even further into eight, nine, ten, and possibly even more launches in 2021.