In a surprise press conference this afternoon, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was thrilled to announce that last Friday's test of the Falcon 9 was successful. He also revealed that the upstart spaceflight company has filed suit against the US government in protest of no-competition contracts.
After boosting a supply-filled Dragon capsule to the International Space Station last Friday, SpaceX successfully brought the first stage of their Falcon 9 back to Earth under controlled flight. With the aid of newly-attached landing legs, the Falcon 9's main boost stage successfully restarted and brought the first stage of the rocket to a hover over the Atlantic Ocean for eight seconds before presumably being swamped by waves. Extremely heavy seas precluded any recovery attempts for two days.
Reusing launch vehicles like the Falcon 9 would revolutionize access to space, both in cost and frequency. A single Falcon 9, already one of the least expensive launch options available, costs about $60 million. Of that, only 0.3% (or about $180,000) is the cost of the fuel. The other 99.7% is the single-use cost of the rocket. Musk estimates that about 70% of that total is accounted for by the main boost stage, the section landed successfully last week. Simply reusing that stage could reduce the cost of a launch to a mere $18 million. Beyond that, Musk foresees the capability to refuel and relaunch the same stage again on the same day. That's a far cry from the months it typically takes to produce a flight-ready rocket.
Although a lot of this may still seem like more talk than action, SpaceX is preparing to silence their critics. By the end of the year, after several more ocean-landing tests, the company plans to return a first stage Falcon 9 to a launch pad at Cape Canaveral. Once engineers have the chance to examine and test an already-flown rocket, progress towards reusing it can begin.
In less upbeat news, Musk also announced the SpaceX has just filed suit in Federal court in protest of no-compete contracts awarded by the Department of Defense. The company's particular complaint is that a contract for more than 30 upcoming national security launches was awarded to the United Launch Alliance (ULA) without an open competition. The ULA is a collaboration between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. SpaceX, which has now met Air Force requirements for certification, believes that the lack of competitive bidding has cost the American people an enormous amount of wasted money. Furthermore, Musk pointed out that the ULA's Atlas V rocket includes critical components manufactured in Russia. Russia and the United States are currently at odds over the Russian annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.