WASHINGTON — SpaceX made history on Thursday night with the successful launch of a reused Falcon 9 rocket, marking the first time a commercial company has been able to send a previously-launched rocket into space a second time.
SpaceX won't deploy a national security payload until at least 2018, when a Falcon 9 launches a GPS III satellite into space, but Thursday's launch could open the door for less expensive Defense Department space missions in the future. However, analysts told Defense News it could take years, perhaps even a decade, for reusable rockets to become a regular part of military space launch.
The Falcon 9 lifted off yesterday from NASA's Kennedy Space Center as planned at about 6:27 p.m. Eastern time. The first and second stages separated, and about nine minutes after takeoff, SpaceX tweeted that the first stage had landed on Of Course I Still Love You, the company's autonomous drone ship.
While yesterday’s launch will likely stoke Defense Department interest in reusability, near term impact will likely be limited, said Bill Ostrove, an Aerospace Systems Analyst for Forecast International.
"The Defense Department is very conservative in the way they manage their launch services right now," he told Defense News on March 31.
"Because launches have traditionally been so expensive, they’ve kind of gotten into a cycle where they pack as many capabilities into each satellite as possible to maximize what is going up with each launch. What that’s created is a situation is a situation where they really have to focus on launch reliability, and that reinforces the high expense of the launches."
The Pentagon will likely remain in an observation mode while the SpaceX continues testing reusable launch vehicles, waiting for the company to prove that its technology is reliable, said Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation.
Even if the military is years away from adopting reusable launch systems themselves, the department may still be able to financially benefit from the commercial sector’s use. SpaceX founder Elon Musk believes he can substantially lower the cost of a Falcon 9 launch — currently valued at about $62 million — "by as much as a factor of a hundred" if the rocket can be flown many times like a commercial airplane.
"Right now we don’t know exactly what SpaceX’s pricing plans are going to be," Ostrove said. "It would be sort of be a logical move to, if they are going to use a launch vehicle 10 or 15 times, to spread the cost over those 10 or 15 times, rather than the first customer pay full price and then lower prices for everyone else."
In that model, the Defense Department theoretically could purchase the first launch, with commercial companies purchasing subsequent ones.
But Weeden pointed out that SpaceX launches for the military cost considerably more than for commercial customers because of Pentagon requirements, which demand greater financial oversight as well as additional checks of the launch system itself.
"SpaceX is going to continue to be able to bid on Air Force contracts like the GPS. In theory those might get cheaper over time," he said. "But even if there are savings there, I don’t think it will have a huge impact. Those savings might be offset by all the additional requirements that DoD already has for those particular launches."
Additionally, the Falcon 9 launch vehicle doesn’t meet the requirements to carry many military payloads, which tend to be larger and heavier, he said.
"It won’t be until Falcon Heavy comes along until SpaceX itself will be able to say they can launch a lot of the biggest and heaviest national security payloads. And that’s of course still a ways off. And reusability is even further away," Weeden said.
If the Air Force begins fielding smaller, more disaggregated satellites — an idea officials have championed because of the benefits to survivability — it might also be willing to experiment with reusable rockets because there would be less financial risk involved if a launch failed, Ostrove said.
But it’s unclear what the path forward would look like, he added. The Falcon 9 is already certified for national security missions, but the Pentagon has no precedent for validating reusable launch systems.
"It’s hard to say at this point how extensive of a process they would want do use, if they would want to start from scratch [and certify it] as if it was a new launch vehicle, or treat it like a new variant, which would be a much more abbreviated process," he said.
SpaceX isn’t the only company pursuing reusability, but it is the furthest along. Blue Origin is developing an orbital launch vehicle called New Glenn, which would have a reusable first stage like the Falcon 9. United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, plans to make the first stage engines of the Vulcan reusable. However, that functionality will not be available for years after its first flight, scheduled for 2019.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.