Spacex’s seemingly-routine successful launch on 30 March 2017, of a satellite to geosynchronous transfer orbit is a bigger deal than it first seems. The Falcon-9 first stage booster rocket was a used item landed before, and now landed again.
This has never-before been done with a rocket capable of reaching orbit. It portends a near-term dramatic drop in launch costs to space, but only if the technology proves out the way hoped.
Reusable launch to orbit is more demanding than reusable launch into suborbital flight. This is because the conditions when the used stage returns to the atmosphere are far harsher for an orbital launcher.
In the suborbital arena, it isn’t widely publicized yet, but Blue Origin has flown and landed the same New Shepard booster rocket some 5 times now. That, too, has never before been done.
More To Come
There’s more reusable firsts waiting in the wings. Virgin Galactic’s “Spaceship Two”, and XCOR Aerospace”s “Lynx”. Both are reusable suborbital spaceplanes for the tourist industry.
There is also Sierra Nevada’s orbital “Dreamchaser” spaceplane, which is undergoing its initial tests. And, Spacex’s “Dragon” capsules were designed from the beginning to be re-used.
Blue Origin does plan to enter the orbital market with its New Glenn rocket, which is to be reusable. That activity is just beginning: the new big engine for it has begun ground testing.
Spacex plans to fly soon a much larger reusable rocket called Falcon-Heavy, that is based on its Falcon-9 hardware. As I understand it, the first flight of Falcon Heavy is deferred, until pad 40 at Cape Canaveral is repaired after last year’s explosion. This is wise, because a problem test-flying Falcon-Heavy off of pad 39 then cannot stop commercial Falcon-9 launches off pad 40.
Spaceship Two is about to resume flight testing after an accident in test a while back. It will carry about half a dozen passengers, and a crew of two pilots. It is launched from a large carrier plane.
Lynx is smaller: one passenger, one pilot. But it simply takes off from a runway, flies into space, and returns to that runway, perhaps up to 4 times per day. The first flight test article is nearing completion.
A Look Behind the Curtain
What is so remarkable about all this is not so much what is being done, but who is doing it! Not one of those names is part of the industry that worked with NASA or the USAF all these decades, which is sometimes called “old space”. This is entirely what we might call “new space”.
That is not to say that these “new space” companies don’t work with NASA or USAF, because many do. Spacex has NASA contracts to deliver cargo with its Dragon to the space station, as does Orbital ATK with its Cygnus.
Spacex has a NASA contract to develop a crewed variant of “Dragon” to deliver astronauts to orbit, as does Boeing with its CST-100 “Starliner” capsule. Sierra Nevada’s “Dreamchaser” spaceplane was also contracted by NASA for this, got dropped for a while, but may now get contracted again.
NASA and USAF are also interested in Blue Origin’s New Glenn orbital rocket, especially the engines that will push it. These engines may be candidates for a follow-on launch rocket to the Atlas-V, that both agencies routinely buy from the Boeing / Lockheed-Martin venture ULA (United Launch Alliance).
And Spacex now has contracts from USAF to launch some of its satellites. Before, only ULA had any of that business.
Why This Is Happening
What broke this market open for “new space” entrants was their lower prices. And that came from competition in the commercial satellite launch business, something neither NASA nor USAF does. These American companies and a variety of foreign companies all had to learn how to reduce price, competing in that growing commercial satellite business.
Up to now, the “secret” was simplification of the logistical “tail” that supports production and flight of these rockets as expendable vehicles. Reducing that support tail from the size of a major city to the size of a small town reduced the “typical” per-launch price from many hundreds of millions of dollars to only several tens of millions of dollars: almost a factor of 10.
Reusability promises to reduce that by at least another factor of 10! Maybe more!
It is fundamentally the large size of the commercial satellite launch market that can support so many companies competing in it. That has taken decades to grow. But the competition that is inherent with many companies is what spurs the innovation that cuts costs, allowing lower prices.
Consolidation into one, or a few, stops that competition. That kills downward pressure on prices, and thus dis-incentivizes innovation.
Amazing what the truly-competitive market can do for you, given time and opportunity.