Today is 6 April 2018. That deafening roar that you DIDN’T hear yesterday was the SpaceX Block 5 Falcon 9 rocket. It didn’t launch yesterday. Nor did it launch in February…nor in December. SpaceX plans fall short of reality again. The trademark of Elon Musk’s and his companies are their ability to fail to live up to their claims.
Block 5 Falcon 9 – The Grand Promise
Block 5 is the made-up name for SpaceX’s final version of the Falcon 9. It is critical to their hope to be NASA’s go-to company for the manned space program. There is a catch. SpaceX has to fly the Block 5 booster seven times without making any upgrades or changes before NASA will put humans onboard.
There is another catch. SpaceX entire company has been built around one concept: economical space flight. Their method is reusability, and the centerpiece is the reusable booster. Musk has made grand claims that the SpaceX booster will be used ten times. In addition, some people have been suggesting that the booster will only need an inspection and will be able to be reflown in a matter of days.
To date, the maximum any booster has been reused is once (F9 Boosters B1021, B1023, B1025, B1029, B1031, B1032, B1035, B1036, B1038, B1039, B1041.) Of the eleven reflown boosters, six were relanded after the second flight, but then they were ‘retired’ or junked. The rest were ‘expended’ or destroyed. None of these boosters were Block 5 types.
The Snake Oil of Spaceflight
Any cost savings of the reusable booster have been eliminated by the waste of expending, relanding, and recovering junk boosters. The delays of the Block 5 are costing SpaceX money, and the idea that a booster can be landed, inspected, and reflown in days was the boast of NASA with the Space Shuttle. NASA found out the hard way. It is not possible without endangering lives.
The other aspect of this is that only SpaceX knows how much these launches really cost. They are not making the cost per launch available to the public. They could be charging much less than the actual cost to hide the fact that the reusable booster doesn’t actually save money.
Space Customers Are Watching
The first Block 5 flight is now scheduled for 24 April. The first SpaceX crewed flight was scheduled for December. It is improbable, and likely impossible that SpaceX will be able to have seven successful Block 5 flights in time to meet the December deadline.
This delay comes after a five-year delay in the launch of the Falcon Heavy. The first one was a spectacular success, but there are two more scheduled launches of the Falcon Heavy this year. Both have to be on time and successful, or SpaceX will face increasing doubts about its reliability.