Today, Thursday March 30th, 2017, SpaceX launched a “recycled” or “flight proven” rocket that in April 2016 had launched cargo to the International Space Station for NASA. The first stage from that April 2016 launch landed on the ocean drone ship, “Of Course I Still Love You”. This rocket set it’s first milestone, as the first Falcon 9 1st stage to land on the ocean barge. SpaceX had previously landed a first stage on land, making this the second landing.
This mission payload for the rocket’s second launch, called SES-10, was launched from Kennedy Space Center’s historic Pad 39A. SES-10 is a geostationary communications satellite to be operated by SES and is designed and manufactured by Airbus Defense and Space on the Eurostar E3000 platform. The primary goal was to deliver a communications satellite into geosynchronous orbit — about 22,000 miles above Earth. The secondary mission was recapturing the rocket.
Currently, SpaceX rockets cost roughly $61.2 million on first launch. According to some estimates, SpaceX could expect to reduce the cost of launch by 30 percent by simply reusing the first stage. A 30% cost savings to customers translates into Falcon 9’s advertised price to $42.8 million, which is $18.36 million in savings. This considerably lower launch price makes it possible for more players to get involved in the space industry, and help open up space like never before.
Before SpaceX launched their Falcon 9 rocket, a fully reusable 1st stage orbital rocket had not existed. Science fiction authors have been imagining spacecraft that are not disposable for years. Disposable rockets do not fit with this vision; therefore, scientists and engineers starting in the 1960’s started to contemplate reusable rockets. The Space Shuttles developed by NASA, which were developed to be truly reusable, never achieved this goal fully. The Space Shuttle could be reused, but the cost to refurbish the shuttles between flights made the craft more expensive than expendable rockets. The cost of refurbishing each Shuttle after flights cost close to half a billion dollars a flight according to some costs and ultimately caused the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program.
BlueOrigin, owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, has shown success in the same type of reusability, but for a different service. BlueOrigin rocket, called New Shepard has already made repeated hops above 62 miles, the altitude considered the boundary of space. However, unlike the Falcon 9, New Shepard is not able to accelerate to the speeds needed to achieve Earth orbit, or put satellites into orbit. Therefore, instead of launching satellite payloads, BlueOrigin will use the New Shepard rocket primarily for space tourism.
The next BlueOrigin rocket, called New Glenn will utilize the techniques and technologies learned by New Shepard for orbital launches starting around 2020 from Cape Canaveral Florida. BlueOrigin plans to land the first stage of New Glenn in a similar method to how SpaceX currently recovers the first stage of the Falcon 9.
United Launch Alliance
The United Launch Alliance has planned for some reusability for their next iteration of rocket, which is called Vulcan. Unlike SpaceX and BlueOrigin which would land the entire first stage, ULA’s plan is for the Vulcan engine compartment to eject and descend via parachute, and be captured via helicopter while in-flight. This would allow for the most expensive part of the rocket to be saved and reused every time; however, this seems more complex than the method SpaceX currently uses, and has not yet been proved.
The NASA SLS, Space Launch System, will be the most powerful rocket ever built, but will not be reusable, and will likely fly very rarely due to its complexity, price per launch, and payload availability.