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SpaceX founder Elon Musk has famously described it as the “holy grail” of rocketry. He is, of course, referring to the reusability of spacecraft, including the booster rocket that is responsible for carrying passengers and payloads to space. As the overwhelming success of the Falcon 9 program has shown, reusable rockets have been the game-changing technology that all the experts, Musk included, foresaw.

As proven by its numerous successful landings, Falcon 9 is at the forefront of reusable rocket technology in the new era of space travel. Both the rocket booster and capsule portions are routinely reused as are the cargo fairings. The upper stage and pressurized trunk, however, are expendable. 

Private companies like SpaceX have long touted the development of reusable rocket technology as the turning point in the commercialization of space travel and exploration. Not only were they right but partners like NASA and the U.S. military are jumping on board and reaping the benefits of safe, reliable, and cost-effective space transport. Here’s how SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is a model program for reusing rockets.

Can Falcon 9 be Reused

According to SpaceX’s website, its Falcon 9 program is the “first orbital class rocket capable of reflight” and the numbers for this workhorse two-stage rocket thus far are admirable, to say the least:

  • There have been 128 launches of Falcon 9
  • The rocket booster stage has landed 88 times
  • Recovered Falcon 9 boosters have been reflown 70 times

With each successful launch, landing, and re-launch, Falcon 9’s already impressive resume becomes more extraordinary. And given SpaceX’s penchant for pushing the limits on current technology to gain insight for designing future generations of hardware, there are more milestones sure to come.

When it comes to the reusability of Falcon 9, the star of the show is the rocket booster which not only transports passengers and payloads to orbital space but must then undergo a highly sophisticated series of automated maneuvers to return back to earth. Here is a look at the steps involved for Falcon 9 to be reused:

  • Since it is a two-stage rocket with the booster being the first stage, the Falcon 9’s landing sequence does not begin until the two stages separate during flight (this is known as “staging”)
  • After staging, the rocket begins to descend through the atmosphere but must be re-oriented, essentially flipped around, so that it lands in the same position as its take-off (e.g., with the engines directed toward the ground)
  • To this end, cold gas thrusters at the top of the rocket aid in orienting the vehicle right side up
  • The rocket’s engines briefly fire to decelerate the spacecraft as it heads toward the landing zone (more on this later)
  • As Falcon 9’s rocket stage nears the landing pad, its landing gear deploys, and 3 of its 9 Merlin  engines fire during the “boostback burn” so that the rocket appears to be floating above the ground before gently touching down 

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket landings have occurred dozens of times in recent years but given the complex series of perfectly timed and coordinated events that must occur, each successful landing is truly an awe-inspiring sight that never gets old.

Is Falcon 9 Fully Reusable?

While Falcon 9 is proof positive that rockets can be reused, the practice is sustainable, and the technology profitable, not every part of the spacecraft can be reused. Currently, the rocket booster, capsule, and cargo fairings (the clamshell apparatus that houses payloads for non-crewed missions) are routinely recovered and reused.

But being a two-stage vehicle, the second stage and pressurized trunk of the Falcon 9 are expendable and not reused. However, SpaceX has made it known that its next generation of spacecraft, Starship, is being designed as a fully reusable vehicle.

Where does Falcon 9 Land?

The location and manner of rocket landings are mission-specific, meaning that the nature of Falcon 9’s journey dictates whether a particular launch occurs in Florida (Cape Canaveral or Kennedy Space Center) or California (Vandenberg Air Force Base). This in turn determines where the rocket will return. 

When it comes to a Falcon 9 landing, there is another wrinkle that must be taken into account with each mission: whether it will take place on land or at sea. 

Aside from designated landing zones on solid ground, SpaceX operates three autonomous drone ships that are stationed on both coasts and provide mobile landing platforms at sea, further enabling SpaceX to push performance limits on its Falcon 9 rocket missions. SpaceX’s fleet of autonomous drone ships currently consists of these vessels:

  • A Shortfall of Gravitas (supports Florida landings)
  • Just Read the Instructions (supports Florida landings)
  • Of Course I Still Love You (supports California landings)

The fact that there are two drone ships stationed off Florida correlates to the higher frequency of launches occurring from Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center.

How Many Times can Falcon 9 be Reused?

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has gone on record regarding the number of times that Falcon 9 can be reused, stating that there is no “obvious limit” as to how many times the same Falcon 9 can be reflown.

According to SpaceX, the newer version of Falcon 9 can be reflown ten times with minor refurbishment required between missions. With proper maintenance and upkeep, it is feasible for a Falcon 9 rocket booster to last 100 missions.

Currently, the most decorated Falcon 9 rocket is a booster designated B1051 which has a record ten missions flown thus far. With its darkened appearance (the result of soot from repeated launches and re-entries into the earth’s atmosphere), B1051 will undergo routine refurbishment, and another record-breaking mission – eleven and counting – is entirely feasible.


Since its inception, SpaceX has revolutionized the space industry and its Falcon 9 rocket is not only turned heads with its reusability, it is redefining spacecraft in the process.