Teslarati photographer Pauline Acalin’s recent trips to drone ship Just Read The Instructions’ berth in Port of San Pedro shows that SpaceX technicians are nearly done preparing the hibernating vessel for a return to Falcon 9 rocket recoveries in the Pacific Ocean, a ten-month drought likely to end for good on July 20th.
Although it’s hard to believe, SpaceX’s West Coast autonomous spaceport drone ship (ASDS) has been effectively marooned at its Port of Los Angeles berth for more than nine full months, with the vessel’s last recovery occurring just after the October 9 launch of ten Iridium NEXT satellites, the fourth of five SpaceX Vandenberg launches in 2017 (and the fourth of four West Coast booster landings).
Three months after that October mission and booster recovery, SpaceX expended their next California launch and marked the beginning of a streak of eight missions where flight-proven Block 3 and 4 boosters could have been recovered but no attempts were made. While intermixed with the spectacle of Falcon Heavy’s dual side booster landings at LZ-1, the debut launch and recovery of Falcon 9 Block 5, and two other Block 4 booster recoveries, the majority of SpaceX’s launches since December 2017 have been treated as expendable – put simply, the company decided that recovering and refurbishing twice-flown boosters of older Falcon 9 blocks was not worth the effort and expense.
Instead, those well-worn boosters were expended in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans after partially supporting a series of experimental tests designed to gather additional data on the recovery envelope of SpaceX’s partially reusable rockets. The rationale makes sense – SpaceX fundamentally sacrificed some of its older, less-reusable Falcon 9 boosters for the sake of knowledge that may allow their highly reusable Falcon 9 Block 5 predecessors a better chance of successfully landing even after exceptionally fast, hot, and high-energy recoveries, a necessity if the upgraded rockets are to be reused 10 to 100 times, as is the goal.
Although Just Read The Instructions spent several months without a full complement of maneuvering thrusters, thanks in part to efforts to keep its besieged East coast sister Of Course I Still Love You operational, photographer Pauline Acalin’s photos over the last several months show that the vessel now has four full thrusters installed and ready to bring it back into rocket recovery action in the Pacific Ocean.
Still, the abrupt return to expendable rocket launches after a year – 2017 – filled to the brim with 18 of 18 successful launches and 14 of 14 successful landings led to a decidedly fascinating vein of disapproval in the SpaceX enthusiast and broader spaceflight fan communities – people had grown accustomed to the adrenaline-soaked thrill of routine Falcon 9 rocket landings. Some expressed worries that regularly and intentionally expending large hunks of metal in the ocean could harm their ecosystems and was tantamount to littering. None the wiser, every other launch provider in the world continues to expend all of their rocket boosters without any attempts at recovery like the nearly all non-Shuttle rocket launches in the past six decades, and their tepidly reusable next-generation rockets are unlikely to even begin attempting hardware recovery until the mid-2020s at the earliest.
Frankly, SpaceX’s abrupt successes with orbital-class rocket recovery struck a chord with observers, demonstrating just how intuitive attempting to recover expensive rocket hardware really is, while also bringing into clear focus the actual insanity of failing to try and of the seemingly ad-hoc rationalization of expendable rocketry. Thankfully, we still have SpaceX, and the company’s spate of rocket booster sacrifices is likely just one expendable launch away from coming to an effective end for the indefinite future, with that particular launch – CRS-15 – scheduled less than two weeks from now, on June 29th.
After CRS-15, which will probably see its twice-flown Block 4 booster expended in the Atlantic, a combination of Block 5 Falcon 9s and Heavies will theoretically bring to an end the practice of expending orbital rocket boosters, at least on SpaceX’s watch. Considering that the upgraded boosters have been designed and built to launch as many as ten times with minimal refurbishment and potentially 100+ times with regular maintenance, the opportunity cost of an expended Block 5 rocket booster is so high that it is difficult to imagine SpaceX will be easily swayed to expend one until it’s flown at least several times prior.
We here at Teslarati eagerly await the imminent demise of expendable rockets, set to begin in earnest – at least for SpaceX – around July 19th and 20th with two Falcon 9 Block 5 launches on two coasts, one with Telstar 19V (Florida) and the other with Iridium-7 (California).
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