Space, we’re in the era of reusability

Space, we’re in the era of reusability

The biggest plans are being made in space.

Investment banks are looking for the ability to mine asteroids to extract precious, rare metals. Japan plans to build a Solar power plant. The billionaire tycoons would like to construct hotels on orbit for space travelers.

We may be witnessing the beginning of a new growth in the economy of space. However, so far, none of these ideas has been able to get past the sketch board. What’s the biggest obstacle?

Reusing rockets

The first thing to note is that it’s difficult to make money in space. Transporting “stuff” (cargo, equipment and even people) from Earth to the space environment is an costly process. This is due to the fact that we aren’t yet able to reuse rockets.

From the time that rocket launch Sputnik set off the space age more than 60 years ago and the majority of spacecraft launched have been Expensible launch Vehicles (ELVs), that only fly once. After they have delivered their payloads, they can either crash back towards Earthburn up in the atmosphere or stay in orbit, a “space junk”.

Each time a new payload has to be launched out into the universe, a brand new ELV must be constructed and costing billions of dollars. Imagine what an Uber will be if its driver was to purchase a new vehicle for each journey!

It could be that the best solution could be reuse of rockets. The concept to use Reusable Launch Vehicles (RLVs) isn’t a new concept However, the process of reusing rockets was a bit difficult previously.

The first serious attempt at creating RLV was in the early days of RLV came from the NASA Space Shuttle program.

Space Shuttle Space Shuttle fleet was meant to cut costs of space travel by being reusable at least in part. But instead of lowering expenses, the program increased costs. The risk and complexity that came with operating spacecrafts Space Shuttle fleet made maintaining and operating them costly. Then, when the 30-year program came to an end in 2011, it appeared as if the argument for RLVs was over.

Space Shuttle Atlantis undergoing maintenance at Kennedy Space Center in 2003. NASA

Recycling and recovering

However, those who advocated for RLVs were not deterred.

After the last Space Shuttle flight, SpaceX, a new company started by tech billionaire Elon Musk, revealed plans to make the Falcon 9 rocket reusable. SpaceX started to explore ways to reuse and recycle the booster stage on Falcon 9, the biggest and most expensive element in the spacecraft.

A few years later, the company started attempting to salvage old boosters through controlled dives into the ocean after they had completed their mission. After a few spectacular failures, SpaceX was able to successfully find a booster for the first time in the latter part of 2015..

In the following 15 months, SpaceX recovered more and more boosters, accumulating an inventory of rockets that were used. SpaceX hasn’t used one of them.

This changed in March 2017 when one of the used boosters was repaired and then used to launch a satellite for communications. It wasn’t the only time that a rocket was reused. That honor will always be the property of NASA’s Space Shuttle program. However, like it, the Space Shuttle, the used Falcon 9 was cheaper.

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