The first-generation of SpaceX’s Space Launch System rocket, the first version of which is slated to launch on an uncrewed Dragon capsule in late 2018, has been built to a mass-produced standard that’s so low-tech that it’s nearly impossible to make an exact replica.
The problem: SpaceX has no plans to use the new vehicle for commercial missions.
“SpaceX’s goal for Dragon is to be a reusable rocket,” said the company’s CEO, Elon Musk, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
“But our ultimate goal is to go back and do it the old-fashioned way.”
Musk is referring to the fact that SpaceX’s rocket engines have been designed for use in commercial space taxis, which are built for the sole purpose of transporting passengers to and from the International Space Station.
SpaceX is also developing a version of its Dragon capsule, dubbed Dragon II, for use on commercial missions to the International Orbital Exhibition and Research Center in Florida.
Dragon II’s engines will be able to be reused for commercial launches, but it won’t be the first time SpaceX’s reused the engines for a mission.
Musk has said that it was his intention to reuse the Falcon 9 first stage of the Falcon Heavy rocket for its first launch, but that the company never got the green light.
“We were pretty much on a dead end,” Musk said.
“The engine had already been used in a commercial rocket, and it had a life of around two years.
So, in theory, if we were going to launch Dragon II with the Falcon-9 first stage, the engines were good for the life of the vehicle.
But they weren’t.”
The problem with using the engines to make Dragon II was that they have a large fuel tank, which makes it difficult to reuse them for a future mission.
The company’s first attempt at using the first stage’s engines for commercial space flights was a 2010 attempt to land the Falcon 1 booster atop a dummy launch pad in Texas, but the attempt failed because of a bad weather system.
SpaceX’s next attempt to use its engine for commercial purposes was in 2013, when the company sent a Dragon capsule into space with an unpowered second stage.
This time around, SpaceX’s Dragon was the only rocket to make it to orbit.
SpaceX hopes to reuse Dragon II for a second launch later this year, although it’s unclear when that mission will take place.
“Dragon II will be our last flight with the engines,” Musk told the Journal.
SpaceX hasn’t publicly released any plans for a new vehicle to replace the Falcon 3 rocket, which was retired after the company lost control of the company in 2015.
“There are some interesting possibilities for a reusable vehicle that will be designed to fly a spacecraft that will have a longer liftoff time,” Musk added.
That would be the kind of system that would be used by us to go to Mars, which is something that we would love to do.”