By now, SpaceX landing one of its Falcon 9 rockets (or even landing two, for that matter) is barely worthy of a headline. But late this afternoon, Elon Musk’s rocket company successfully launched and landed a Block 5 Falcon 9, the newest, most powerful, and most important version of SpaceX’s flagship rocket.
The Block 5 is a big deal for SpaceX because it’s the culmination of the entire Falcon 9 project. Not only is it the most powerful version of the Falcon 9, it’s also the most highly reusable model, and it’s going to be the rocket that takes humans to space for NASA.
The redesigned engines are at the core of the Block 5 Falcon 9. Not only do they push out a little more power, they do so while requiring significantly less maintenance. The Falcon 9 rockets that SpaceX has been flying for the last year are all reusable, but they require an extensive teardown between flights to perform maintenance.
According to Elon Musk, the Block 5 rockets will be able to fly up to 10 times with zero maintenance, and up to 100 times in total. The eventual plan is for the rockets to land vertically, be taken back down to horizontal, have a new payload attached, be put back upright on the launchpad, and sent back into space. If SpaceX can actually pull that off, it would make spaceflight dramatically cheaper and easier to access. Ultimately, Musk hopes to have 30 to 50 Block 5 rockets in SpaceX’s fleet, capable of running hundreds of missions per year.
Ironically, the first zero-maintenance rocket is going to have to be torn apart to prove that it can fly again without intervention. Once the Block 5 Falcon 9 comes back from the autonomous landing ship, SpaceX engineers will have to take it apart to examine components and verify that it could fly again without maintenance. “Ironically, we need to take it apart to confirm that it does not need to be taken apart,” Musk told reporters on a call before the flight.