60 hours after docking, B1046 was loaded horizontally onto its transporter. (Tom Cross)

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Block 5 boosters landing in great shape as competitors betray anxiety

SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell has announced that the company’s upgraded Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket – debuted in May 2018 – is making its way through peak-stress launches, reentries, and landings in “much better shape than anticipated”, ultimately meaning that Falcon 9 booster refurbishment can now take as little as four weeks between flights.

At the same time, Shotwell’s industry peers and competitors continue to betray some level of real anxiety about SpaceX’s meteoric rise and technological step up with displays of hyperbolic overconfidence.

Speaking on a panel of launch providers at 2018’s Paris-based World Satellite Business Week conference, the discussion was rich with banter and comparatively heated comments from leaders of companies like Arianespace, ILS (International Launch Services, a commercial arm of Roscosmos), ULA, and Blue Origin, as well as SpaceX’s own Gwynne Shotwell. As effortlessly confident as ever, Shotwell’s presence and, perhaps, the general state of the industry appeared to trigger some rather brash and thoroughly entertaining fireworks from other executives.

United Launch Alliance’s Tory Bruno, CEO of a company that has literally never recovered or reused any flown hardware from one of its launches, noted that ULA’s wholly-unproven and untested strategy for reuse – unlikely to begin flight tests before the mid-2020s – would likely be superior to SpaceX’s own approach, apparently owing to the fact that the company has yet to reuse their Falcon 9 boosters dozens of times. ULA has yet to so much as announce the rocket engines it will use on its next-generation expendable rocket, known as Vulcan, expected to conduct its first-ever launch no earlier than the second half of 2020. Their current Atlas 5, Delta II, and Delta IV launch vehicles are and will remain 100% expendable up to the end of their careers.

Nevertheless, ILS President Kirk Pysher didn’t let Bruno steal all of the allotted braggadocio, making the humorous claim that “our customers don’t care about reusability” so long as “their launch is on time, reliable, and at the right price point”. Indeed, if one could actually launch a fully expendable rocket at a price point competitive with an organically-priced reusable rocket (i.e. no artificial inflation to recoup $1 billion of investment in the tech, which SpaceX is choosing to do), Pysher’s statement would be 100% accurate. Instead, ILS can lay claim to no more than a tiny fraction of commercial launch contracts today, dramatically hobbled by the fact that development of the company’s only potential competitive advantage – Proton Medium – has been indefinitely frozen, likely killing the rocket.

All things considered, Shotwell remains a breath of fresh air in an increasingly stale group, stoic, factual, and straightforward in the face of cantankerous and withering titans of the rocket industry. Speaking last week to a Masters of Business Administration class in Madrid, Spain, Shotwell bluntly and rather accurately stated that “with the advent of SpaceX, I think everyone in the industry is happy except other launch providers.” Much like other similar sessions at conferences earlier this year and otherwise, today’s conference panel of launch provider executives certainly serves to drive home just how correct the SpaceX President is.

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SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Block 5 boosters landing in great shape as competitors betray anxiety
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