SpaceX CEO Elon Musk spoke at the National Press Club September 29 about SpaceX plans to develop a “fully and rapidly reusable rocket.” Musk stated that reusable rockets pose a very difficult engineering problem, but he believes it can be solved. Stating that SpaceX has a design that works on paper and in simulations, he emphasized that reality is the ultimate test. Although there is no guarantee of success, SpaceX is going to give it a try.

The SpaceX design for a reusable Falcon 9 rocket brings the first stage back to land propulsively. The second stage would do a re-entry burn, re-enter with a heat shield, steer and then rotate to land propulsively. Video below:

Video no longer available

For the technically inclined, Musk reported that the video animation is not completely accurate, in part because the animation was completed before the analysis was, and in part to withhold some proprietary information.

“If it works, it will be huge,” Musk said, predicting a possible 100-fold reduction in launch costs. If a Falcon 9 costs $50 million and is re-used 1,000 times, that means its contribution to each flight would be only $50 thousand. The fuel for a Falcon 9 costs about $200 thousand. He did not supply a time frame for any of these developments.

Musk prefaced his remarks by talking about the importance of space and of life becoming multiplanetary, stating that the importance of that on an evolutionary scale can be compared to life coming onto land or developing from single cells to multicellular organisms. He also pointed out that space is a form of life insurance: extinction events are fairly common in geologic history, and “we are the only species that can use consciousness to avoid this.”

SpaceX recently filed papers with the FAA regarding planned test flights of a reusable suborbital vehicle (called “Grasshopper”) that is 106 feet tall and built around the first-stage fuel tank of the existing Falcon 9.

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