The Fate of the Falcons

At some point it seems that SpaceX plans to retire the Falcon series in favor of the BFR (series?). For a fully developed and productive launch system to be retired due to improvements within the company line there must be compelling reason. If it comes to pass of course.

The Falcons seem to have reached one of their goals with 16 successful landings in a row. So are the accumulating first stages of a reusable vehicle to be left to rot when the new kid takes over? Seems quite odd to me. If the BFR series ends up as cheap to operate as projected, it’s just possible that the Falcons cannot be profitably flown by SpaceX when development becomes operations.

What about other launch providers. By the time BFR is fully operational there could be dozens of flight proven Falcon cores available. How many providers would jump at the chance of buying a first stage that could be flown repeatedly after some modifications of their own upper stages. It still wouldn’t let them compete with BFR. It would however, allow them to operate a national or corporate proprietary launch system for substantial savings without having to buy launches externally.

This could provide revenue from the vehicle sales to SpaceX just when it is trying to recover financially from multiple development efforts. There would be a steady revenue stream from parts and technical assistance. It may be one of the reasons for proving the recovery of the vehicle in the first place.

I could see ATK buying a couple of cores to fly out their manifest without have to deal directly with a competitor. Ariane could probably use a few. I wonder how the economics would trade for India.

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I do construction for a living and aerospace as an occasional hobby. I am an inventor and a bit of an entrepreneur. I've been self employed since the 1980s and working in concrete since the 1970s. When I grow up, I want to work with rockets and spacecraft. I did a stupid rocket trick a few decades back and decided not to try another hot fire without adult supervision. Haven't located much of that as we are all big kids when working with our passions.

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19 Responses to The Fate of the Falcons

  1. TheRadicalModerate says:

    I’d expect that there’s plenty of time to run the existing cores out to their likely life. The real question is how they manage manufacturing new ones. That’s going to be a function of how confident they are in the BFR schedule. More confidence = more reliance on old cores. Less confidence = more need to manufacture new ones.

    Also, remember that SpaceX can easily do a fire sale on any F9/FH launch capacity that’s left. It’s always going to be possible to set a price where F9 ops are competitive, even with the BFR. And I doubt that SLC-40 is going to be turned into a BFR pad first thing.

    My biggest question is whether the Adelaide talk was basically a declaration that they’re going to shoot FH in the head almost immediately. Seems to me that the era of small fairings is rapidly coming to a close.

  2. Dave Salt says:

    I’d expect ITAR would be a big issue in selling to non-US companies, though some form of ‘wet lease’ may well be possible. Nevertheless, this all assumes BFR can be fielded successfully as an operational system.

    Personally, I have no problem believing it’s technically feasible and have been waiting for decades for someone to at least try. Now, SpaceX appears to have now amassed sufficient real-world experience to be confident that highly reusable launcher vehicles are now a practical reality. The only real question is how fast these can be fielded to enable an operational service – something that may be paced more by economics and regulations than engineering.

    Nevertheless, I also suspect that Musk is being somewhat provocative in order to raise the level of fear/uncertainty/doubt in both his competitors and investors… something he learned well during his time in the software industry.

  3. DougSpace says:

    Perhaps a F9 core with a Dragon on top could provide fully-reusable suborbital tourism flight gets.

  4. David says:

    Support infrastructure is likely a key reason, and the biggest problem to your proposal to selling F9 cores off. The buyer would need to outfit a pad capable of launching one. And potentially a drone ship, etc. SpaceX isn’t going to want to keep that infrastructure around, just look at how much trouble they are having with trying to get the ability to fly two F9 variants.

  5. Andrew Swallow says:

    Trucks and vans come in a variety of sizes so I suspect the Falcon 9 will be replaced by a smaller variant of the ITS able to launch 20-30 tonnes to LEO. SpaceX may keep the Dragon V2.

  6. My understanding of SpaceX’s plans based on Elon’s talk are:
    1) Build up a large number of Falcon cores;
    2) Stop production of new Falcon cores in order to start development of BFR; and
    3) Continue flying used Falcon cores until BFR comes online.

    It sounds like there will be a substantial amount of time between the end of the production of Falcon cores and the first production flight of BFR where they will need all of the used cores they can get their hands on. Knowing how Elon like to project unreasonably aggressive schedules, I’d expect those Falcon cores are going to get more flights than currently planned.

  7. johnhare john hare says:

    Five cores will fly a years manifest at one per week if they can get their 10 flights between refurbishment. Half a dozen years if that large number of cores is 30. And then refurbishing extends even further. Hopefully they don’t cut it so close that there is no life left in the cores when the change over occurs. That would be courting business disaster.

  8. Andrew Swallow says:

    The cut off should not occur until the ITS is ready. So this has to be event triggered not time triggered. Possibly the successful landing of the ITS.

  9. DougSpace says:

    Grant. #2 is wring. BFR development starts when engineering resources is opened up. That occurs not after Falcon production ends but when F9 Block 5, Dragon V2, and FH develooment ends. Each of those are coming to the end of their development phase. So BFR development could start as soon as Elon said (did he say in about half a year). However, once Falcon production ends then there will be yet more resources available to accelerate BFR development, testing, and flights.

  10. Bob Steinke says:

    I wonder if Elon is getting dazzled by the estimated marginal cost of a paper rocket compared to the actual cost of an operational system. Once it’s built, something like a BFR could probably be operated cheaper than F9 and FH, but unless they are swimming in cash I can’t see it being a good business decision to start paying more development costs so quickly after developing the Falcons. And where is the market volume going to come from in the short term?

  11. DougSpace says:

    > And where is the market volume going to come from in the short term?

    His own constellation?

  12. Dave Salt says:

    I agree with Bob that the marginal costs make BFR appear spectacularly attractive, just as long as you ignore the realities of things like operations, maintenance and repair. For example, simply calculating the specific cost of a BFR flight based solely upon propellant costs (e.g. $0.15/kg for LOx and $1.35/kg for CH4) suggests it could launch payloads into LEO for $3/kg (i.e. 150t payload, using 860t of LOx and 240t of CH4).

    Nevertheless, it has been noted many times that the cost of operating a mature transportation system (e.g. railroads, trucks, ships, airlines) tends to be a function of its fuel cost, which are typically between two and five times. So, even doubling this ‘rule of thumb’ would suggest a mature BFR fleet could deliver payload into LEO for a specific cost of around $30/kg (i.e. less than $5m/flight), which is still rather impressive.

    Concerning the other question Bob raised with respect to recovering development costs, if we assume Musk sets the absolute price per flight for BFR at $20m (i.e. equal to the price of a fully mature/amortised F9, with maximum reusability) this would give him a ‘profit’ of $15m/flight with which to pay-back its development cost. So, assuming they can develop BFR for $1b, pay-back will take less than 70 flights, which would take about two year if we assume the 30 flights that Musk projected for 2018. However, with the possible exception of Blue Origin, there is unlikely to be any competing launch system that would push SpaceX to go so low. Therefore, if SpaceX kept their current price of $60m/flight, pay-back would take less than 25 flights. Moreover, they could do this by servicing the only current market (i.e. flying BFR almost empty, carrying only one 6t comsat and 144t of ‘ballast’), though I’m sure such spare capacity would not long go to waste.

    Obviously any increase of development costs would similarly increase these pay-back numbers but they do suggest that the business challenge may not be as crazy as it first appears *IF* they can deliver the levels of performance, reliability and maintainability that BFR needs to achieve in order to become a truly reusable launch system.

  13. Paul451 says:


    “2) Stop production of new Falcon cores in order to start development of BFR “

    They’ve already started development.

    The Falcon core line will only be shut down when they start the manufacture of BFRs. Not during the development phase. Ie, the point where they need the personnel (and money/equipment/physical space) to set up the new manufacturing lines to have multiple units under simultaneous production.

    With the maturation of Falcon 9, they have a chunk of Dev people already becoming available, obviously starting with the engine guys. Over the next two years, as FH and Dragon V2 come online, they’ll free up a bunch more Dev people. Once BFR reaches production readiness, they can shut down Merlin and F9 core production and free up production people, space, equipment to ready BFRs for flight testing. Once they have BFRs in flight, they can shut down Dragon production (existing D2’s will be reusable, they should have a nice sized fleet by then) to free up more buildings/funding/personnel. And then as more of the F9 manifest switched over to lower BFR launches, they can finally shut down F9US and fairing production.

    Based on their history, once they get to first launch, it shouldn’t take more than 2-3yrs to mature the design of BFR and its variants. It should be possible to balance the F9 shut-down so that the backlog of F9 parts is sufficient, even with delays, without being excessive.

    Re: Paper rockets vs real ops.

    I would think that by now Musk has a pretty good idea how much it costs to launch a rocket.

  14. Justin says:

    He has a very good idea how much it costs to launch *a* rocket, that rocket being Falcon 9. How well that knowledge translates to a very different rocket is an open question. By his own admission Elon drastically underestimated the difficulty in “simply” strapping together three Falcon 9 to make a Falcon Heavy.

  15. matterbeam says:


    I wrote a blog post suggesting that Falcon 9 booster continue to be used with SpaceX developing a fully reusable second stages based on a scaled down Big Falcon Spaceship. I called it the SFR: Small Falcon Rocket.

    It garnered a lot heated discussion on reddit’s SpaceX forum, here:

    What do you think?

  16. johnhare john hare says:

    Where is the blog post?

  17. matterbeam says:

    Sorry. I felt uncomfortable just sharing links to my own blog… on your blog.

    Here it is:

  18. johnhare john hare says:

    I took a look at the post and comments. I couldn’t get much sense out of the unattached comments on reddit without knowing the details of the subject under discussion.

    I think a Raptor upper stage for the F9 and FH could easily make sense, especially as an interim vehicle. The devil is in the details though as you discuss in your post. Can the BFR be operational in a timely manner? Will it hit its’ price points? Will it have a problem with infant mortality? etc

    I think that development time and cost of developing a single Raptor upper stage would have to be weighed against the questions about the BFR. If development cost, effort, and time is quite low, and the service life would be several years, it seems possible that it might be worthwhile. The other set of questions would be capability and costs against the existing Merlin upper stage. It would be a very interesting set of trades, though I doubt our discussion has much influence on the SpaceX decision process.

  19. matterbeam says:

    Good points, thanks.
    My personal belief is that the BFR project will live or die based on whether the US government unlocks a multi-billion dollar wallet for a large-scale Mars mission. All other questions are of lesser importance, as something like the SFR can continue SpaceX’s domination of the space launch markets for decades to come. Only the Mars mission will need the BFR’s cargo capacity.

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