SpaceX and NASA made history a few weeks ago when astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley lifted off on their way to the International Space Station (ISS). Unlike all past astronaut launches, Behnken and Hurley flew aboard a privately developed spacecraft launched from the US as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule used for that launch were shiny and new, but that might not be the case later. NASA has agreed to let SpaceX use previously flown hardware to transport people to and from space.
SpaceX designed the Falcon 9 to be reusable, and it has been making good use of that capability on cargo missions for years. After launch, the Falcon 9 first stage booster detaches from the second stage while it’s still got some fuel remaining. It uses that fuel to slow its descent and land vertically on land or one of SpaceX’s drone ships at sea. It can then refurbish and reuse the rocket. The Dragon capsule is also a reusable vehicle that can be recovered after splashdown.
As SpaceX worked toward its goal of launching NASA astronauts, the plan was only to use new hardware. SpaceX could recover the booster and capsule for use on non-NASA missions, but the astronauts on their way to the ISS would always be climbing into a nice, new spacecraft. With the Demo-2 mission behind us, NASA and SpaceX have been reassessing this restriction. SpaceX proposed using pre-flown Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon capsules. After assessing the possible risks, NASA has agreed this is in the best interests of the government.
SpaceX has been reflying boosters for years, and some of them have racked up as many as five cargo launches. There has not, thus far, been any evidence to suggest the hardware has a higher likelihood of failure after refurbishment. Reusing rockets allows SpaceX to offer launch services for lower prices. However, NASA will inspect the hardware beforehand, and it won’t allow SpaceX to use boosters with too many previous flights for crewed missions.
NASA’s next crewed launch with SpaceX should take place later this summer, but preparations have already started. SpaceX is planning to use a new booster and capsule for this mission as it did for Demo-2. SpaceX’s next trip to the ISS after that won’t be until early 2021, which could give it time to fix up a recovered booster to fly it again.
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