Landing its Falcon 9 rocket in December was a big step for SpaceX and the entire space industry. But now the company needs to get to the point it can actually reuse a landed Falcon 9 -- a step that even SpaceX CEO Elon Musk himself has implied could lag further behind. But a New Year's Eve tweet from Musk suggests the very first Falcon 9 to land could be reusable.
Ready to fire again
"Falcon 9 back in the hangar at Cape Canaveral," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said on Dec. 31. "No damage found, ready to fire again."
This report from Musk is great news for the company. Landing rockets is only one step in the equation of reusability, and Musk had previously implied that landing the Falcon 9 may not automatically translate to reusability right away. SpaceX will have to inspect its rockets after it begins landing them to find out where they are over- and under-strengthened, and then make any needed adjustments, Musk has said. But with Musk now reporting that the rocket is "ready to fire again" after its very first landing, perhaps SpaceX was closer to regular reusability than it thought.
However, just because the Falcon 9 is "ready to fire" doesn't mean SpaceX will actually send this specific rocket back to space. Indeed, unless the CEO has changed his mind, the current plan is for SpaceX to refrain from sending this version back to space.
"I think we'll probably keep this one on the ground," Musk said in a press call after the company landed the Falcon 9 (via The Verge), "just [because] it's kind of unique, it's the first one we've brought back."
But Musk did say SpaceX plans to perform a static fire test on the Launchpad in Cape Canaveral to assess whether or not the systems are still operational. So, when Musk said on New Year's eve that the Falcon 9 was "ready to fire again" he was likely referring to a full-thrust static fire test.
Musk said after the Falcon 9 launch that the company does intend to reuse a landed Falcon 9 "sometime next year."
If SpaceX can both land and reuse its rockets next year, the company may soon be able to offer far more competitive pricing. Musk has said achieving reusability would dramatically reduce the costs of flights. Currently, the company spends about $16 million manufacturing each Falcon 9 and around only $200,000 to refuel the vehicle. Achieving reusability, therefore, would mean the current standard pricing for Falcon 9 at $61.2 million could be cut significantly even as the company's profit margins remain as good -- or even better -- than they were before the company began reusing rockets.
The Falcon 9's successful landing also bodes well for SpaceX' Falcon Heavy, which uses three Falcon 9 cores. Like the Falcon 9, the Falcon Heavy is designed for reusability. The Falcon Heavy, however, will be the world's most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two, according to SpaceX. And it's capable of delivering an impressive 53 metric tons to orbit. Its flights are currently priced at $90 million, but achieving reusability for Falcon Heavy could enable much lower pricing for this rocket as well. The first Falcon Heavy flight is scheduled for this year.