The underappreciated difficulty in SpaceX's reusability effort is that
each part of the flight process is its own distinct economic loop: With
Falcon 9, that's stage one, stage two, a fairing, and a spacecraft (be
it payload or cargo/crew ship), all with their own costs and scaling
obstacles. To get a better understanding of this, let's dive into what
that looks like.
I. Current Reuse Status
While it's still a monopoly in the industry in terms of reuse, SpaceX
finds itself in an ironic position where the loop that's only been
partially closed - the booster (1 of 2 stages) - has the tightest
scaling cycle, while the higher level of reusability of the Dragon
spacecraft has yielded little scale. This is the breakdown of current
- Booster: Partial. (S1: Full, S2: None).
- Fairing: None.
- Dragon: Partial. (Heat shield is main refurb/replace element)
Current pace of reusability:
- S1: Full and slow. Current scale record: 3 cycles over 207 days.
Single cycle record: 73 days.
- S2: None.
- Fairing: None.
- Dragon: Full and very slow. Current scale and single-cycle record:
2 cycles over 655 days.
And the current trending:
- S1: Slowly tightening cycle. Progression of cycle durations (in
days): 357, 161, 235, 196, 182, 276, 621 (FH side core), 569 (FH
side core), 183, 173, 232, 135, 271, 73, 89, 76, 117, 119, 123, 137.
- S2: Unclear. Elon waffles between categorical abandonment and
mentions of theoretical recovery approaches (e.g., a "balloon"
- Fairing: Intended, but not yet achieved dry recovery.
- Dragon: Very slow hysteresis. Progression of cycle durations (in
days): 987, 977, 727, 712, 655.
II. Comments on Current Status
We can see that the F9 first stage has halved its cycle duration about
twice-over since reuse began, whereas Dragon has not yet halved once.
Moreover, likely due to NASA's slow pace and the lack of commercial
customers, there have not been many Dragon reuses, and their durations
are still much farther apart than the F9 first stage cycles have ever
There is, in fact, no scale statistic about Dragon that is yet
superlative: There have only been 17 total flights in its 7-year
operational history, with the annual record number of flights at 4 in
2017 (only 1 of which was reused). When we realize that Dragon 1 is just
ship, with far fewer technical challenges to scale than a
human spacecraft, this suggests that the process of scaling Dragon 2 -
let alone the vastly more ambitious human spacecraft under development -
will be daunting and long.
One encouraging sign with respect to Falcon 9 first stage cycles is the
sudden downward jump we see in connection with Block 5 coming online,
but even so the cycle durations are measured in several months rather
than weeks or days. We can be confident that the cycles will continue to
tighten, but the pace of their convergence seems likely to remain
moderate. Turnaround time will need to be halved another 2-4 times over
before this one component of the launch process begins to resemble full
and rapid reuse, at which point the booster as a whole will still
have entered that domain due to Stage 2.
III. Obstacles to Scaled Cadence of Current Architecture
Lacking any precedent to measure against, we can only rely on aesthetics
and intuition to say that cycling of F9-S1 reuse appears to be occurring
at a "healthy" pace. However, the process is shortly due to collide with
a limitation in the current launch industry as a whole: The dreadeddemand plateau
The industry as it evolved has made most satellite launch classes
radically price-inelastic, meaning that only extreme step-changes in
price (possibly more than one order of magnitude) would facilitate
proportional growth in the quantity of launches demanded. Short of this
step-change, wherever it is, price reductions would have only small
effect on demand. Since reducing costs to get past the plateau range
relies on scaling the number of flights, this is a bit of a pickle.
While within the demand plateau, the company will not be able to
strongly pass along cost savings with price cuts, instead having to keep
a tight cycle of reinvestment to achieve greater savings as quickly as
possible. The technical capacity for shorter-duration reuse may be
demonstrated, but on average the cadence may appear stagnant for several
years until the plateau is passed.
SpaceX's strategy is to supplement demand with its own early Starlink
launches on Falcon 9, prior to scaled deployment on the new rocket - a
gamble whose outcome can't be predicted due to the strength of the
competition (OneWeb). It is unclear what level of financial exposure
SpaceX will take on by funding launch scale with demand from another
If exposure is low, then SpaceX would see a net benefit from Starlink
demand even if Starlink fails: The money could carry at least Falcon 9
(regardless of what happens to Super-Heavy/Starship development) safely
across the demand plateau to regions where prices can be cut drastically
and yield proportional demand increases existing beyond Starlink itself.
Even if the new rocket had to be delayed, such a development could fund
versioning of Falcon 9 that might eventually yield full-booster reuse.
But if the exposure of relying on Starlink is high, then the risk may be
zero-sum and the demand plateau a lethal desert that SpaceX can only
survive by crossing.
As it remains fully expendable, stage 2 can only advance through direct
scaling of launch cadence, so its cost-progress is much more vulnerable
to the demand plateau than stage 1. SpaceX has repeatedly changed its
mind about the prospects for S2 reusability, occasionally talking about
various approaches that might be attempted, but consistently walks them
back to a default position that pursuing S2 reuse would be a dead-end.
The company has a long and vaunted history of reevaluating past
decisions, seeing what may be practical now that wasn't when a prior
decision was made, so the status of F9-S2 can never be regarded as
absolute. However, the lack of commitment to a reuse strategy for it -
and the lack of a cost-effective, stepwise experimental approach like S1
benefited from - suggests any path even to recovery, let alone reuse,
would be long. The demand plateau and SH/Starship development makes
major up-front investments in F9-S2 recovery appear unlikely for the
SpaceX appears committed to recovering and reusing fairings. However,
ironically, a company that lands orbital rockets under power on seagoing
ships has not yet been able to catch a fairing half descending under
parachute in a giant net (think about how surreal and amazing that
To all accounts from the company, should they succeed at recovery of
fairings, reuse would not be a major challenge. If that happens, the
contribution to cost reduction would be small but significant. But at
this point we must still say "if" when speaking of fairing recovery. Andif
it does occur, that won't necessarily mean that a reliable approach
to recovery has been found, rather than just getting lucky.
Just as much as we can never declare F9-S2 recovery and reuse efforts
dead, we also can't declare fairing
recovery and reuse efforts
guaranteed to persist.
While SpaceX spoke for many years of commercializing Dragon 1, it never
flew even a single private mission, and none are manifested. The most
likely outcome based on this history and current plans is that Dragon 1
will never be what was hoped, and will not scale much further beyond
current cadences before being superseded.
Whether by design or NASA demand, Dragon 1 goes through extensive
refurbishment before being reused, including the most critical element,
the heat shield. Even as a cargo ship, it does not begin to approach the
turnaround times achieved in the early history of Space Shuttle,
although it is radically more cost-effective.
Dragon 2 is shaping up in similarly disheartening ways: It was
originally meant to be fully and rapidly reusable, with designs aimed at
a straightforward development pathway and tightening reuse cycles. As
SpaceX's first human spacecraft, the original plan incorporated all of
its know-how and practical ambitions into a system meant to both meet
the needs of NASA and create
a private-sector human orbital economy.
Eleventh-hour design interference from NASA appears to have drastically
reduced its prospects as a scalable commercial system.
Originally designed to land under power, NASA ruled out landing at all
due to concerns about the heat shield, forcing a backpedal to
1960s-style splashdowns while the SuperDraco landing system was
preserved only as an LES - which was originally its secondary
function. These changes forced the cancellation of planned
interplanetary applications, and is likely to have drastically increased
the needed refurbishment Dragon 2 reuse.
Without RTLS capability, Dragon 2 reuse cycles are likely to resemble
(if not exceed) Dragon 1 cycles, which will also sharply limit its
ability to offer game-changing commercial prices. The deep level of
interference from NASA in D2 design and operational heritage has likely
made its prospects as a private human spacecraft marginal for the
foreseeable future. Private flights may occur, but scaling is unlikely.
The current manifest has it at a lower cadence than Dragon 1 out to
2024, and exceeding either the Dragon 1 cadence record (4/year) or its
reuse cycle record (655 days), while plausible, would be optimistic.
However, the existence of the SuperDraco system does preserve at least
the option to pursue both RTLS capability and modestly accelerated reuse
cycling. Though it seems SpaceX would have to walk on eggshells to do
this without invoking the ire of Dragon 2's only manifested customer.
- (5) Overall comments on current architecture challenges.
The key insight here is that it's much more challenging to scalespacecraft
than boosters, but spacecraft are "the thing that gets
you to the thing" - a spacefaring civilization. Scaled boosters are
necessary for that, but without accompanied progress in spacecraft, they
mainly drive the satellite market.
IV. Brief thoughts on Super-Heavy and Starship
SpaceX hopes to pole-vault directly over the demand plateau with SH/SS,
deploying a system that is fully and rapidly reusable from inception. It
hopes to do so through money from Starlink, ongoing profits from its
current Falcon 9 business, and the considerable amount being paid by
Yusaku Maezawa for the DearMoon circumlunar mission.
The lesson identified above - that scaling spacecraft is harder than
scaling boosters - is incorporated into the SH/SS architecture by a key
feature: The spacecraft is
the upper stage of the booster. This means
that every payload mission contributes directly to tightening the reuse
cycle of the spacecraft, unlike the current architecture where they are
However, we should keep in mind that the demands of a huge human-capable
spacecraft likely exceed those of a cargo-deployment system by a vast
degree, so the principle will still apply, and may force versioning
cycles that will complicate and delay reuse cycling.