What’s so special about the Falcon 9 boosters?
It seems SpaceX are keeping their cards close to their chest over the precise cost break down of a Falcon 9 rocket; but, from what we could glean, the stage 1 booster seems to account for about 60% of the total cost, with most of that cost down to the 9 Merlin Engines.
SpaceX actually do quote the current total price of a Falcon 9 launch (less the payload cost) at approx. $US67 Million – though Elon reckons that, with a good wind behind them, it might cost less than $10 Million per launch, in the next few years.
So, assuming that wind has not yet come and assuming the above is close, the boosters would come in at approx. $US40 M each. Only 50 starlink satellites at about $US400k a pop, are sent into orbit on each launch – a total payload of $US20 M. So, on our back of the envelop calculation, the launch costs of the booster alone increase the cost of each satellite by 200%. And that’s just the cost contribution from the booster!!
But, this is where the story becomes interesting. On Saturday 19th March 2022, SpaceX broke their record and reused a booster for the 12th time! Elon reckons that in the future, with the correct refurbishment systems in place (mainly streamlining the cleaning of the Merlin engines), they could potentially reuse boosters up to 100 times! In that case, the launch costs of the booster alone would just add 2% to the cost of the satellite!
The Raptor engines for Starship are way more complex but are actually far easier to clean than the Merlin engines and so the Starship booster could potentially be reused even more times. And, furthermore, Starship will be able to take 400 satellites into orbit at one time. Just imagine those savings!
Ultimately, the potential success of SpaceX is all down to this reusability and the key to this, are the Block 5 stage 1 boosters. They might not be cool or ever get to orbit but they are the key to unlocking future space travel. If you want to check out this secret of SpaceX’s success for yourself, here are 5 places you can go to visit the actual boosters themselves:
1. SpaceX’s Headquarters, Hawthorne, California:
At the intersection of Crenshaw Blvd. and Jack Northrop Avenue, towering above a local multi-story carpark, is a unique site - the very first Falcon 9 Booster to land successfully on its own. It just so happens that this is also the location of the Headquarters of SpaceX, in Hawthorne California. In December 2015, after successfully launching 11 communication satellites into space, the booster guided itself back perfectly to land on solid ground at Cape Canaveral. Being the very first successfully landed booster, this remains one of the most iconic.
2. Space Center Houston:
Space Center Houston, Texas is the home of NASA and the ISS Mission Control - as well as the main training base for US astronauts. Amongst over 400 space exhibits, including the world’s largest collection of moon rocks, sits a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster. At over 3 m in diameter and almost 48 m long, it’s an awesome sight. A Falcon 9 v1.2 (Block 3) (B1035) and the 7th booster ever to be reused. However, all the other previously flown boosters landed on drone ships; this was the very first re-flown booster to land on terra firma, at Cape Canaveral. But, almost more importantly, it was the first booster to be reused on a NASA mission. At that point, NASA was fully onboard.
3. The Kennedy Space Center:
On Merritt Island in Florida, just west across the Banana river from Cape Canaveral, lies The Kennedy Space Center. The Gateway attraction in Spring 2022 will feature the Space Coast’s very first permanent Falcon 9 booster display. Booster 1023 was flown twice, once in 2016 on the Thaicom 8 mission and then in 2018 as a side booster on the Falcon Heavy demo flight. On the Thaicom 8 mission it had a hard landing on the drone ship and partially crushed a leg. Known as the leaning tower of Thaicom-8, it still made it back safely to dry land and to be used again on the 2018 mission.
4. Starbase Boca Chica:
(Photo courtesy of - SpaceX)
A few short years ago, Boca Chica in Texas seemed pretty much abandoned with just a small cluster of houses next to the beach on a wide expanse of dirt, close to the Mexican border. It’s now one of the fastest growing and most exciting Space Exploration Centers on Earth – it is the home of SpaceX. It’s in the middle of absolutely nowhere and the nearest town is Brownsville, about 25 miles and 40 minutes’ drive away. You won’t see a permanent Falcon 9 booster on display here as this is not a museum ... but it is rumoured that the Falcon Heavy will launch from Boca Chica and so, if you time it right, you could definitely see a booster in action. Otherwise, a brief stop in the SpaceX Tiki bar might make up for it.
5. Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport (BRO) (coming soon):
(Photo courtesy of - Everyday Astronaut)
In a rogue tweet towards the end of February this year, Elon offered to send a Starship Prototype to BRO International Airport, should they want it. Almost before the dust had settled on the tweet, the airport management fired back confirming they were up for it, had selected a location and were eager to sign. So, it seems sooner rather than later, visitors flying into Brownsville will be under no misapprehension what is happening nearby. SpaceX are keen to build a strong symbiotic relationship between themselves and the local residents in Brownsville and Boca Chica as they turbo-charge the local economy. Whether the display will include a Super Heavy Booster, time will tell… but we think it’s a good bet!