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Russian expert slams Musk's use of booster relaunch as gimmick to show off to investors

March 31, 19:15 UTC+3 MOSCOW

SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket with a SES-10 communications satellite from Cape Canaveral on Thursday

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MOSCOW, March 31. /TASS/. The launch of the Falcon 9 rocket, in which Elon Musk’s SpaceX used a re-fly booster to deliver payload into outer space is nothing more than a show-off for investors and spectators, Corresponding Member of Russia’s Tsiolkovsky Cosmonautics Academy Andrei Ionin told TASS on Friday.

SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket with a SES-10 communications satellite from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Thursday. The rocket’s first stage subsequently safely landed on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean. Before that, the booster went into outer space in April last year when it orbited a Dragon spacecraft with supplies for the crew of the International Space Station. Therefore, SpaceX has been the first in the world to use a re-fly rocket for payload delivery into outer space.

"This was a show for spectators and investors but the efficiency of any technology will be decided when its cost becomes clear. So far, we see that Musk has become more cautious in his statements. His goal now is to reduce the launch cost by 30%," Ionin said.

This is not such an ambitious goal as the cost of a Falcon rocket is three times lower than the cost of a US Atlas-5 carrier rocket, the expert said.

"So far, the talk is more about promises and even Musk does not predict a considerable cut in the cost of launches. But this reduction is needed because a launch could cost a hundred million US dollars when satellites worth hundreds of millions of US dollars were orbited whereas the launch of satellites worth several hundred thousand US dollars already require a different rocket with a different launch cost," the Russian expert said.

The technology of a re-fly rocket is not new and was used for space shuttle flights as far back as 40 years ago, he added.

"The use of a re-fly stage is not new as the first solid-propellant stages of space shuttles were relaunched. To my professional mind, the re-launch of such a hi-tech spacecraft as the Space Shuttle is a more complex task from the viewpoint of technologies than the re-launch of the rocket’s first stage. And this task was successfully solved almost 40 years ago," the expert said.

SpaceX as Russia’s main rival

Research Adviser of the Space Policy Institute Ivan Moiseyev said that SpaceX was turning into Russia’s main rival on the space launch market.

"Just a few years ago, the market was divided between Europe and Russia whereas today the situation has changed drastically - the company SpaceX has taken up Russia’s place. If there are no accidents, the plans of Falcon-9 launches this year will be comparable with all Russian launches. This is quite a commercially strong blow on our commercial cosmonautics," the expert said.

Russia’s State Space Corporation Roscosmos is responding to the challenges with available possibilities, he added.

"It has announced a considerable reduction in the cost of Proton rocket launches. The commercial price of this rocket’s launch is considerably higher than its prime cost and we have the potential for the price cut. But customers are giving up our services because the number of payloads [satellites] remains unchanged and does not grow. Correspondingly, a new player on the market snatches away a part of orders," the expert noted.

Plans to develop Proton-Light and Proton-Medium carrier rockets better adapted to market demand are another measure taken by Roscosmos, he said.

"And Roscosmos is increasing the reliability of its space hardware. A large number of faulty engines that has been found is perceived negatively but suggests that Roscosmos has come to address the issues of reliability and higher labor productivity," Moiseyev added.

In turn, Ionin noted that the competitive price of Russian carrier rockets is not $100 million or $80 million but is $50 million, i.e. the price of a Falcon-9 rocket minus 20%

"But it is necessary to remember that Russia’s work on the market of space launch services is not a goal in itself for Russian cosmonautics," the expert said.

Case history

SpaceX has developed and successfully implemented the technology of returning a used rocket stage fitted out with four unfolding landing supports for a soft touchdown. The descent is conducted with the help of engines and parachutes. This technique takes into account a probability that a rocket may fall short of fuel for a landing approach. A special remote controlled sea platform is used as a landing site.

Musk’s company earlier managed to return used Falcon-9 rocket stages eight times. Last time, the booster returned to the Earth after orbiting a Dragon spacecraft with supplies for the International Space Station. However, no re-launches of such carrier rockets have been made until now. As SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said, the company expects to carry out six launches of flown Falcon-9 boosters.

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