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SpaceX targets 24-hour first stage rocket re-use turnaround by 2018

In a talk at the ISS R&D conference on Wednesday, Elon Musk shared some more insight into SpaceX’s path to fast and full rocket reusability. The company hopes to achieve its 24-hour turnaround window for used Falcon 9 rockets sometime next year, he said, and there is already “a technical path in place to achieving that.”

Some of its reuse efforts aren’t immediately bearing fruit in terms of lowering costs, however – Musk revealed that refurbishing the Dragon capsule it flew for a second time during the most recent ISS resupply mission cost “almost as much – maybe more” than building a new one from scratch.

That should improve over time, however, as SpaceX gets better at refurbishing the cargo craft. Next time around, it should be able to shave a few percentage points off the cost of refurbishment, he said, which makes it sound like in the case of the capsule at least, there’s still lots of work to be done for rapid reflight capabilities.

Meanwhile, Musk said that SpaceX is getting closer to being able to recover the fairing, a nosecone that sits atop the rocket to protect the payload during launch. The company managed to land one of those earlier this year, and Musk said that they’re now “quite close” to being able to land it and recover the component as well. The fairing, including all of its integrated systems, is a $5 or $6 million piece of equipment, he noted.

“Imagine if we had a $6 million pallet of cash falling through the sky,” Musk said he tells his staff. “Would we try to catch it? I think the answer is yes.”

Fairing recover is on track for either the end of this year, or the beginning of next, Musk added. Between the boost stage, and the fairing, this would make SpaceX’s launches about 80 percent reusable, and he also noted that “for a lot of missions, we could even bring the second stage back, so we’re going to try to do that.”

Rapid and full rocket reusability is a basic necessity for making Mars missions viable, Musk later commented, which is why it’s such a crucial part of SpaceX’s pipeline.