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SpaceX Falcon 9 Block 5 will usher in a new era of rapid reuse rockets

Despite all missions being readily in the range of recovery, SpaceX has only attempted to recover its Falcon boosters after two of the company’s five 2018 launches. If anything, the attachment to Falcon boosters and the apparent melancholy felt by many observers when they are not recovered is a testament to the staggeringly abrupt success of SpaceX’s reusable rocketry program.

Aside from Falcon Heavy’s center core and 1044, each booster expended in the last several months (Iridium-4, GovSat-1, and PAZ) was aging, flight-proven, and nearing the end of its operational life: Block 3 and Block 4 Falcon 9s were simply not designed or expected to fly more than two or three times total. Their seemingly premature deaths were thus a necessary step along the path to Block 5 and truly rapid and cheap booster reuse; perhaps as pragmatic as quite literally making space for new and superior hardware at SpaceX’s many facilities. The demise of Falcon Heavy’s center core nevertheless made for a spectacular video (skip to 1:10, or watch the whole thing…).

The end (of old Falcons) is nigh

Despite the carnage in recent times, the next two weeks are likely to see several more flight-proven Falcon 9s meet their timely, watery demise, or at least complete their final flight in the case of CRS-14.

  • Iridium-5 (NET March 29) will be flying atop Booster (B) 1041, previously used for Iridium-3 (Oct. 2017)
  • CRS-14 (NET April 2) will make use of B1039, a booster that debuted with the launch of CRS-12 (Aug. 2017)
  • Iridium-6/GRACE-FO (NET April 28) was confirmed just yesterday to be flying on B1043, the booster that launched the now-infamous Zuma spysat this January
  • Lastly, SES-12 (NET April 30) will likely use B1040, which orbited the USAF’s secretive X-37B spaceplane in Sept. 2017

While more than a little hard to believe, this series of launches over the next 4-6 weeks may see SpaceX’s fleet of flight-proven boosters shrink to no more than two flightworthy cores – perhaps just a single Falcon 9. The launch of NASA’s exoplanet observatory TESS – set to use the brand new Falcon 9 B1045 – will likely see one additional flight after landing at LZ-1 or OCISLY in mid-April. The final flight-proven booster known to exist in a potentially flightworthy state is B1042, famous for its moderate attempt at self-immolation and Roomba-murder (correction: the Roomba murder attempt was actually a few weeks before, during the landing of SES-11’s flight-proven booster) after the successful launch of Koreasat-5A in Oct. 2017. B1042’s future is unknown at this point, however, as the post-landing fire may have damaged the booster beyond repair.

Rounding out SpaceX’s entire fleet of boosters, at least after SES-12, are the flight-proven B1045, the first-ever Block 5 booster (B1046) – flight-proven after Bangabandhu-1, and the second Block 5 booster (B1047). Assuming that Block 5’s first hot-fire testing has gone well at SpaceX’s McGregor, TX facilities, it’s probable that B1048 and perhaps B1049 will roll out of the Hawthorne factory and head to Texas for their own tests between now and then.

TL;DR: SpaceX is betting heavily on Block 5

The purpose of this brief jaunt through the annals of SpaceX’s rocket fleet and production goals is to demonstrate just how aggressively SpaceX has bet on Block 5 – both on its success as a new and complex technological system and as an unprecedentedly reusable orbital-class rocket. If any design or manufacturing flaws are discovered in the first several Block 5 Falcon 9s, or if Block 5 turns out to be less reusable than SpaceX hopes, the company could well find its manifested launch dates slipping as flightworthy boosters – not satellites – become the bottleneck for access to orbit.

Nevertheless, SpaceX has at least six full-up Falcon 9 boosters in various stages of integration and completion at their Hawthorne factory, as well as 1046 in (or departing) Texas and 1047 presumably on its way there. SpaceX certainly has a strong track record of introducing its many upgraded iterations of Falcon 9 in the past – fingers crossed that that trend continues with Block 5. If SpaceX’s confidence still rings true a month or two from today, a new era of access to space will have truly begun, and SpaceX will be able to quite rapidly refocus a considerable portion of its workforce on getting to Mars.

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SpaceX Falcon 9 Block 5 will usher in a new era of rapid reuse rockets
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