The age of reuse is here in space

The age of reuse is here in space

It isn’t easy to make money in space. Moving “stuff,” such as cargo, equipment, and people, from Earth to space is a costly process. We haven’t figured out how to recycle rockets.

After delivering their payload, they either a reentering Chinese rocket stage streaks across western u.s/”>burn up After they deliver their payload, either crash back to Earth or burn in the atmosphere.

Each time a payload is sent into space, a new ELV must be built. This costs millions of dollars. Imagine the cost of an Uber if every driver was required to purchase a brand-new vehicle for each trip.

Reusing rockets is the obvious answer. Reusable Launch Vehicles are not a new concept. However, reusing missiles in the past has been difficult.

NASA’s Space Shuttle Program was the first to make an RLV.

Space Shuttles were designed to reduce the cost of space travel by being partially recyclable. Increased costs, not lowered them. Maintaining and operating the Space Shuttle fleet was expensive due to its complexity and risks. When the 30-year program concluded in 2011, many people thought that the arguments for RLVs were over.

Space Shuttle Atlantis was maintained at Kennedy Space Center in 2003. NASA

Recycling and Recovering

The RLV advocates were not deterred.

SpaceX – a new company founded by Elon Musk – announced that it would make its Falcon 9 rocket reusable. SpaceX started working on ways to reuse and recover the Falcon 9 booster stage. This is the most expensive, largest part of the rocket.

After two years, SpaceX began to try to recover boosters that had been used by having them descend into the ocean under controlled conditions after their missions. SpaceX successfully recovered a booster in late 2015 after some spectacular failures.

SpaceX continued to recover boosters over the next 15-month period, building a large stock of used rockets. It hasn’t yet been reused.

In March 2017, one of the recovered rocket boosters was refurbished and then used to launch a communication satellite. The Space Shuttle will always be the first to reuse a rocket. The Falcon 9 that was reused, however, was much cheaper than the Space Shuttle.

Recycling rockets is now a profitable business.

Launch costs of medium-lift missiles U.S. Federal Aviation Administration data

The Falcon 9 rocket is already cheaper than comparable medium-sized rockets. It will only become more affordable as more reusable flights are conducted.

What is the reaction of SpaceX’s competitors to these developments?

United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin in the U.S. rocket industry, has published plans for reusing rockets. ULA CEO Tory Bruno is still skeptical of RLVs, even after SpaceX’s successful reuse flight in March.

Arianespace, the European rocket company, ignores RLVs entirely.

The search for the truth is a good place to start.

SpaceX won’t be alone in its quest for reusability, even if traditional players in rocketry continue to ignore RLVs.

Musk isn’t the only billionaire in this industry. Jeff Bezos is the second richest man in the world and owns Blue Origin, a rocket company that competes with SpaceX. The company has finished testing New Shepherd, which is a small suborbital space rocket. It plans to begin sending people into space by 2018.

Blue Origin also works on New Glenn – a larger, reusable rocket that will be able directly to compete with SpaceX.

Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, wants to take tourists on suborbital flights. Branson founded Virgin Galactic, which will fly passengers in SpaceShipTwo – a reusable spaceplane. Virgin Galactic is slated to begin flights in 2018. Hundreds have already paid deposits of US$250,000.

Other groups are also trying to prove that it is not necessary to be a millionaire to participate in the RLV. Reaction Engines is designing the Skylon spaceplane reusable with its SABRE hybrid engine in the U.K.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is developing a reusable rocket. The Indian Space Research Organization has been testing a Space Shuttle-like reusable spaceplane.

The University of Queensland in Australia is developing SPARTAN, a small RLV using scramjet engines.

It will take time to determine which of these efforts is successful, but it’s evident that momentum for RLVs has been building. RLVs promise low-cost space travel, which opens up new opportunities in space.

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