As I think I can say we've all expected, now that Falcon 9 Booster 1051 (B1051) has flown 10 times (back in early May) and they've had a chance to do a thorough inspection, the number of flights to plan for has just taken quite a jump.
At Barcelona's Mobile World Congress (MWC), CEO Elon Musk addressed the plans in a remote address.
Now, five and half years after Falcon 9’s first successful booster landing, four years after SpaceX’s first successful booster reuse, and seven weeks after a Falcon 9 first stage’s first ten-flight milestone, Elon Musk says that some of the company’s fleet of boosters are already “slated to fly 20 or possibly 30 times.” Never one to personally rest or allow his companies to rest on their laurels, SpaceX now has a new target to strive for as teams work to ramp and sustain Falcon 9’s launch cadence at record-breaking levels.
Back in Musk’s 2018 conference call, he also noted that beyond plans for up to ten flights without refurbishment, Falcon boosters could feasibly be made to fly dozens or even 100+ times with occasional in-depth maintenance – not unlike modern aircraft. Three years later, Musk is now talking about launching certain Falcon boosters 20 or 30 times, while something approximating the recurring maintenance he once described has yet to crop up.
Space industry observers know that SpaceX is leading the industry in launches per year, undoubtedly helped by their decreasing launch costs that come from booster reuse. In the last week, SpaceX completed their 20th mission of the year. A couple of days later, a Long March 4C lifted off from China, completing China's 20th mission of the year.
Excluding SpaceX and China, the rest of the world combined completed its 20th orbital launch hours before SpaceX when US startup Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket successfully flew for the second time. In simpler terms, relative to any other country, space agency, or company, SpaceX led the world in orbital launches for the first half of 2021 – the first time in history a single company has managed that feat.
We know China is talking about reuse, but cutting cost isn't a big concern for China. They're launching their own missions and probably have the same idea that the European Space Agency voiced of their mission being providing jobs. The other major players in the "launch for hire" industry are talking about re-use but none of them have recovered their first booster yet.
But what about the American competitors? Surely United Launch Alliance (ULA), Boeing and the other giants must be working on it? Apparently not.
Not long before it was clear that SpaceX would hit that 10-flight target with at least one Falcon booster, competitors working overtime to rationalize a lack of substantial investment into reusable rockets shifted their goalposts again, expanding rationales to require a fleetwide average of ten flights. Instead of explaining why SpaceX’s reusability plans could never work, as many dozens of aerospace executives have assuredly done over the last 5-10 years, the new attitude du jour is to claim that SpaceX’s ability to achieve its reuse goals was never actually in doubt and that the economics of full booster reuse simply can’t make economic sense!
The link in the quote takes you to Reddit, where Tory Bruno, CEO of ULA, shows up and makes the argument that SpaceX has rolled up far more costs than it appears to get where they are today. (You'll have to click two links to get to the expanded conversation on Reddit). Bruno seems to be saying that SpaceX can do this because they have "billions of dollars per year coming in from external investors," but ULA doesn't think it's worth recovering boosters. They think they can recover the engines using their “SMART (Sensible Modular, Autonomous Return Technology) Reuse” approach and get 2/3 of the benefit of landing the booster for much less developmental budget.
One of my favorite quotes about engineering is, "engineering is the art of compromise." There's no such thing as a perfect solution to a complex problem just a series of compromises that must be made to choose what seems to be the best solution for the things you prioritize. Tory Bruno says, "We specialize in high energy, high complexity orbits," saying their missions are more complex and their orbits harder to achieve than SpaceX's launches. That means the propellant needed for propulsive booster recovery could make those high complexity orbits impossible. I know that SpaceX has always said that there are orbits and missions that a Falcon 9 can fly where they won't have enough fuel for the landing and they lose the booster. They charge those customers more.