SpaceX to fly reused rockets on half of all 2018 launches as competition lags far behind

Speaking at SATELLITE 2018, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell reiterated the company’s commitment to and their customers’ acceptance of reusable rockets at the 2018, stating that SpaceX intends to fly reused boosters on at least half of their 2018 launch manifest.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, SpaceX is effectively on track to complete 30 separate missions this year with more than half flying flight-proven Falcon 9 (and Heavy) boosters. Thus far, the company has completed five launches – three flight-proven – in two months, perfectly extrapolating out to ~18 flight-proven missions and 30 total launches in 2018. While the middle weeks of March will not see any SpaceX launches, the company is on track to reach 11 flights total in late April/early March, six with reused boosters.

Ignoring the tidal wave of reusable rockets

Ultimately, SpaceX’s scheduled launch cadence lends a huge amount of credence to Shotwell’s historically pragmatic claim. Assuming a successful introduction of Falcon 9 Block 5 sometime in April (currently April 5), SpaceX may even be able to get closer to flying reused boosters on two thirds of their 2018 launches, a truly jaw-dropping achievement for a year-old technology in an industry that previously saw minimal technological progress in rocketry for the better part of two decades, if not three or even four.

In almost every conceivable manner, SpaceX has taken a complacent industry by surprise, to such an extent that other major rocket builders have barely begun to develop their competitive responses to successful reuse. SpaceX’s main domestic and global competitors – ULA, Arianespace, and ILS – are at best five years away from more than dabbling in operationally reusable rocketry. ULA is in the best shape here, and their strategy of recovering just the engine segment of their future Vulcan rocket is unlikely to fly – let alone conduct the first real reuse of engines – before 2023 or 2024 at the absolute earliest, and reuse is by no means a public priority for the company.

SpaceX’s main competitors are at best five years away from more than dabbling in operationally reusable rocketry

At this point in time, Arianespace has been halfhearted for years in their attempts to seriously consider reusable rocketry. As of 2018, the closest they have gotten is a noncommittal study that would see the French and German space agencies field a Falcon 1-sized (tiny) vehicle to study the SpaceX approach to landing rockets. In the case of Arianespace, ULA, and ILS, their Ariane 6, Vulcan, and Proton Medium rockets currently under development for inaugural launches no earlier than 2020 have indeed all been explicitly designed to compete with SpaceX’s highly-competitive Falcon 9. Sounds promising, right? The reality, however, is that each distinct company has more or less designed their modernized rockets to compete with Falcon 9’s pre-reusability pricing. Even before SpaceX begins to seriously lower the cost of reused Falcon 9s at the customer level, their competitors are already incapable of beating the price of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, at least without accepting net losses or leaning on government subsidies.

Arianespace’s Ariane 5 and ULA’s Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets do have impeccable and undeniably superior records of reliability, but SpaceX is making rapid progress towards enhanced reliability and unprecedented launch cadences. Falcon 9 Block 5 – SpaceX’s hard-won solution to rapid and cheaply reusable rocket boosters – is weeks away from its first launch, with something like six or more additional Block 5 boosters in the late stages of construction and assembly at SpaceX’s Hawthorne factory. The first prototype of BFR, a rocket designed with a fully-reusable booster and upper stage, has already begun to be assembled, with spaceship test hops scheduled to begin in 2019 and full-up orbital tests hoped to begin as early as 2020. Even with a pessimistic outlook on SpaceX’s BFR development prospects, the likelihood of orbital tests/operational launches beginning before the mid-2020s is incredibly high, barring insurmountable technological hurdles.

Whether or not SpaceX actually manages to begin its first flights to Mars in 2022 (even 2024-2026), BFR and its highly reusable orbital upper stage will swallow the launch industry whole if it manages to be even a tenth as affordable as its engineers intend it to be, and it will likely be in the late stages of hardware development and test launches before ULA, Arianespace, or ILS have even begun to operationally fly their tepid responses to reusability.

SpaceX’s BFR is being designed to launch crew, cargo, and fuel for unprecedentedly low prices. (SpaceX)

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SpaceX to fly reused rockets on half of all 2018 launches as competition lags far behind
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