For nearly a decade, SpaceX evolved its Falcon 9 rocket every launch, trying to keep up with lead designer Elon Musk’s relentless pursuit of innovation.
An enhanced version of Falcon 9 called Block 5 launched for the first time on Friday. Musk plans for this new rocket to achieve a host of new milestones for SpaceX, including launching and landing the same rocket twice in 24 hours – as early as next year.
“We expect [Block 5] to be the mainstay of SpaceX business,” Musk said on a conference call with reporters before the launch.
Block 5 is the version of Falcon 9 that SpaceX has been working toward since the rocket’s debut in June 2010. Nearly twice as powerful as that inaugural Falcon 9 rocket, Musk called Block 5 “the last version” of the orbital class rocket.
SpaceX now dominates the global market of orbital rocket launches, which the U.S. had seceded to Russia and Europe until last year. Launching nearly every other week – while developing a gigantic reusable Mars rocket and a constellation of 4,425 broadband satellites – SpaceX has become one of the most valuable private companies in the world, worth nearly $28 billion.
Block 5 simply concretes SpaceX’s business case. Each improved Falcon 9 “is capable of at least 100 flights,” according to Musk. The first Block rocket will undergo “very rigorous” examinations after the flight, Musk said, as SpaceX will be “taking this rocket apart and confirming our design assumptions” about its ability to be launched quickly and repeatedly.
“Ironically, we need to take it apart to confirm that we don’t need to take it apart,” Musk said.
The flight’s success moves Musk closer to his goal for the rocket: “To demonstrate two orbital launches of the same boost vehicle within 24 hours.”
“The only thing that needs to change is that you need to reload propellant and then you can fly again,” Musk said.
Turning around a rocket in a single day would be a momentous achievement. Being able to launch, land and launch again with minimal refurbishment between flights has been a central focus for SpaceX. The company has become quite successful at landing the largest part of the rocket – known as the first stage or booster. But it has yet to complete more than two flights with the same Falcon 9 booster. Block 5 is set to change that.
“Block 5 is designed to be 10 times better” than the last version of Falcon 9, Musk said.
The new rocket type arrives just as SpaceX is on pace to shatter its record 18 successful launches completed last year. SpaceX has already completed nine launches this year in the same time it took them to complete five in 2017 – including the debut of Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket in the world.
“We’re on track to be double our launch rate last year,” Musk said.
Falcon 9 Block 5 launched a Bangladesh telecommunications satellite into space on Friday, before returning to land on the autonomous SpaceX ship off the coast of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean. This was SpaceX’s ninth successful mission this year.
The new rocket comes with a host of upgrades: More powerful engines, more resilient hardware to survive the harsh conditions of reentering the atmosphere and landing, less weight and a more easily produced structure.
“This rocket is really designed to be the most reliable rocket ever built,” Musk said.
Reliability is crucial to the next milestone for SpaceX: Putting astronauts on top of Falcon 9 in the company’s Crew Dragon capsule. NASA requires SpaceX fly the same design of Falcon 9 seven times to certify it for human flight.
“The first, most important thing was addressing all of NASA’s human-rating requirements,” Musk said.
Musk, describing the “thousands and thousands and thousands of requirements,” said Falcon 9 Block 5 is built to sustain multiple failures during a launch in order to ensure the utmost degree of safety possible.
“It’s really designed like a commercial airliner,” Musk said.
Even with the intense standards, Musk said NASA and the U.S. Air Force, SpaceX’s “most conservative customers,” both “feel good about the design intent of this rocket.”
SpaceX is set to complete testing over the next 12 months for its Dragon capsule built to carry humans. With SpaceX nearing the crucial final tests, Musk stressed how the long road the company traveled to get to where it is today.
“It’s taken us, man, from 2002, 16 years of extreme effort and many, many iterations, and thousands of small but important development changes to get to where we think this is even possible,” Musk added. “Crazy hard. And, of course, we still need to demonstrate it. So it’s not like we’ve done it. But it can be done.”