The closing stages of 2015 saw some major advances in the world of commercial spaceflight. Both Blue Origin and Space X demonstrated the ability to fly rockets into space and recover them. In the case of Blue Origin, their New Shepard rocket sent an uncrewed but ballasted capsule above the Kármán line (at 100km this is the internationally recognised as the boundary of space) on a test flight – the same booster has since been re-used and recovered for a second time.
Space X’s achievement was maybe more significant in that they were able to recover the first stage of a Falcon 9 booster to a controlled landing near the Cape Canaveral launch pad as part of an operational flight delivering payload to orbit. While a subsequent attempt to recover a Falcon 9 to a barge following a launch from Vandenberg AFB in California failed, there is good reason to hope recovery may soon become commonplace.
Reusability offers the promise of reduced launch costs meaning a reduction in the price of placing a pound of payload into orbit. The economics are by no means simple – the non-recurring development costs for the launch system must be amortised over a number of successful flights to make such systems economical – but the promise of reduced payload to orbit prices seems certain to drive commercial launch providers in the direction of at least partial reusability.
While we currently recognise the achievements of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, they are by no means the first to look towards providing a reusable rocket for commercial launch services. In the early years of the Reagan Presidency, new legislation sought to open space up to private enterprise. A number of companies sprang up to explore the possibility of providing private launch systems with the aim of competing with NASA’s Shuttle for this predicted commercial payload boom. One such company was Truax Engineering headed by a true unsung visionary of American rocketry – Bob Truax.