SILICON VALLEY -- U.S. startup SpaceX plans to use recovered rockets this year, aiming to eventually slash fees for the service to a hundredth of current rates.
"For the first stage booster recovery, we will fly this year," Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell told The Nikkei in a recent interview. "Rockets came back looking very pristine," she said. SpaceX has successfully conducted four tests in which the rocket's first stage, including the engines, returned and landed at a base back on Earth.
SpaceX expects orders to launch satellites from telecommunications companies and the military in addition to contracts for NASA missions. It currently offers launches for $62 million, which is said to be about 30% cheaper than competitors. SpaceX is seen lowering its fee by another 20% or so by employing reused rockets.
Fuel tanks in the reusable rockets are designed to withstand thousands of uses, while the engines can be reused more than 100 times by repairing them. SpaceX will aim to reuse rockets 10 times for the time being, said Shotwell.
SpaceX will increase launches to lower the cost per mission. It has a launch facility in Florida but plans to set up another in the state of Texas sometime in 2018. Using multiple rockets, it hopes to quadruple launches to about 48 a year.
SpaceX also intends to step up technological development. Currently, it is only able to recover the first stage of its two-stage rockets, but Shotwell said that the company will strive to also recover the second stage, which carries the payload. "There is a lot of work to do for full recovery," she said.
About 100 rockets are launched worldwide every year. SpaceX hopes to win orders by offering low fees, including for space travel in the future.
Rocket launches have traditionally been conducted by government-backed space agencies, so cutting costs was not a priority. SpaceX attempted to shake up the space industry by offering cheap launches, and it has found success by employing ideas from private industry, such as standardization of designs and mass production. The company currently has a backlog of more than 70 orders, with Shotwell noting that the number is growing every week.
In May, Japanese satellite broadcasting company SKY Perfect JSAT launched a communications satellite using SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket for the first time. "There was some debate within the company when we placed the order two years ago, but SpaceX now has a solid track record and is a leading option," said a company executive.
SpaceX was founded in 2002 by the South Africa-born entrepreneur Elon Musk using proceeds from the sale of PayPal, the online payment service he co-founded. His ultimate goal is to enable people to live on Mars. Musk also heads electric-car manufacturer Tesla Motors, which he founded in 2003.