Space is the place for big plans. Investment banks are interest in mining asteroids for rare and valuable metals. Japan is interest in building a solar power plant. Billionaire tycoons are interest in building hotels in space for space tourists. Space could see the beginning of an economic boom. None of these ideas have been implement. They are still stuck.
Space Rockets Can Be Reuse
It’s difficult to make a profit in space. It is expensive to transport stuff, which includes people, cargo, and equipment, from Earth into space. We don’t know how to recycle rockets. The launch of Sputnik 60 years ago has been the beginning of the space age. Most of the spacecraft launched to date are Expendable Launch Vehicles, which can only fly one time. They either crash back to Earth or burn up in the atmosphere after delivering their payload. Or they simply stay in orbit as space junk.
Each time a new payload is need to go into space, an ELV must be built. This can cost millions. Imagine the cost of an Uber if every driver had to purchase a new car! Reusing rockets might seem like the obvious solution. Although the idea of Reusable Launch Vehicles is not new, it has been difficult to reuse rockets in the past. NASA’s Space Shuttle program was the first serious attempt to make an RLV.
Space Shuttle fleets were design to reduce the cost of space transport by being partially reusable. The program did not reduce costs. Maintaining and operating the Space Shuttle fleet was difficult and expensive due to its complexity and high risk. It may have appeared that the argument for RLVs was over when the 30-year-old program ended in 2011.
Recycling And Recovery
However, RLV proponents were not deter. SpaceX, a start up company started by Elon Musk, the tech billionaire, announced plans to make their Falcon 9 rocket reusable a few months after its last Space Shuttle flight. SpaceX began to work on ways to reuse and recover the Falcon 9’s booster, which is the most expensive, largest part of the rocket.
The company started to try to recover boosters that had been lost by making controlled descents into oceans after their missions. This was two years later. SpaceX was able to successfully recover a booster in late 2015, after many spectacular failures.
Built up a large stockpile of secondhand rockets over the next 15-months. SpaceX has yet to reuse any of these boosters. One of the boosters that was recover from the wreckage was use to launch a communications satellite. This was not the first time that a rocket has been reuse. That honor will always go to the Space Shuttle program. The Falcon 9 was, however, cheaper than the Space Shuttle.
Recycling rockets is a good business idea for the first time in human history. The Falcon 9 was cheaper than comparable medium-sized rockets even without being reuse as shown in the chart. It will get even cheaper as more reuse flights are made.
What Is The Reaction Of Space X’s Competitors To These Developments?
United Launch Alliance (ULA), the US’s largest rocket industry company, is now publishing a plan to reuse rockets. It is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Even after the successful SpaceX reuse flight in March 2017, Tory Bruno, CEO of ULA, remains skeptical about RLVs. Arianespace, a European rocket company, seems to ignore RLVs completely.
The Space Quest
SpaceX is not content to be ignore by the traditional players of the rocket industry. Musk is not the only billionaire who wants to own the space industry. Blue Origin, owned by Jeff Bezos (the world’s second-richest person), is a rival rocket company. The company is currently testing New Shepherd, a small suborbital launch rocket. It plans to begin sending people into in 2018.
Blue Origin is also developing New Glenn, which will be a larger reusable rocket capable of competing directly with SpaceX. Richard Branson, founder and CEO of Virgin Group, wants tourists to fly on suborbital flight. Branson founded Virgin Galactic to fly passengers on SpaceShipTwo a reusable spaceplane. Virgin Galactic flights are expect to begin in 2018, and hundreds of people have already paid deposits of US$250,000.
Other groups around the globe are also attempting to prove that the RLV game doesn’t require you to be a billionaire. Reaction Engines in the UK is creating the Skylon reusable spaceplane using its innovative SABRE hybrid engine. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is currently researching a reusable sounding rocket. The Indian Space Research Organization is also testing a Space Shuttle-like spaceplane.
The University of Queensland in Australia is currently developing SPARTAN, an RLV which uses cutting-edge scramjet engines. While it is difficult to predict which of these efforts will be successful, it is clear that momentum is building for RLVs. RLVs offer low-cost transport, which could lead to new opportunities in space. The age of reuse has arrived.