SpaceX: To reusability…and beyond?


Liftoff for Falcon 9 [IMG: SpaceX]

SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 launch, possibly as early as March 29th, will mark a major milestone for the company. Carrying the Luxembourg owned SES-10 communications satellite, it will be the first to reuse – and hopefully recover for a second time – a previously flown Falcon 9 core.

Since the first successful Falcon 9 landing on December 21st 2015, SpaceX have repeatedly demonstrated the ability to recover their first stages to both downrange droneship and Return To Launch Site pad landings. But while there can be no doubting how technically impressive this capability is, it will ultimately count for nothing unless they can refurbish and re-fly the recovered cores repeatedly, amortising their development costs and sustaining reduced launch costs for their customers.

SpaceX had originally hoped that this flight would take place in 2016, but that was before the launch pad explosion of a Falcon 9 carrying the AMOS-6 satellite during a static-fire test on September 1st, 2016. Since Falcon’s return to flight in January this year, the company are pushing hard to regain lost ground across a number of fronts.
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The Sunnyvale Shuttle: Lockheed’s STAR Clipper
The Lockheed/Boeing Phase B proposal [IMG: NASA/LMSC]
With hindsight, it is now popular to view the Space Shuttle as a flawed concept, born out of political compromise and budget constraints. Never able to maintain anything like the original projected flight rates, hugely expensive and time consuming to maintain, the shuttle can seem like something of a developmental dead end or, as some have claimed, proof that reusability can never be economically viable. 

As we enter an era where both SpaceX and Blue Origin aim to prove that Vertical Takeoff/Vertical Landing rockets can offer a sustainable route to Earth orbit and beyond, it’s interesting to look back at a reusable spaceplane concept that predated NASA’s shuttle studies and could, had things been different, have ended up being America’s national launch system from the 1970s onwards. But this is also the story of the man behind the concept, Max Hunter, a visionary who – along with contemporaries such as Philip Bono (see more on Bono’s SSTO designs) – helped define the desirability of reusable launch vehicles at a time when the world was still focused on the short-term spectaculars of Apollo’s race to the Moon.
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The SLS: A layman’s view

The changing face of the SLS – will the rocket be as flexible as the 3D rendering? [IMG: NASA]
The Space Launch System. The World’s most powerful rocket, getting ready to blast humanity into deep space and on our long awaited journey to Mars (or should I say #JourneyToMarsTM). Star of so many CGI animations and NASA presentations that I’ve lost count. 

You’ve changed a bit since we first met – you used to look a lot more like the Saturn V, now you’ve shed the paint job and you look a lot more like a bunch of stuff from the Shuttle, but more of that later. See, the thing is I really, really want to see humanity go further into space and take a journey to Mars. I want to see a lander burrow under the ice and swim in the oceans of Europa, I want an incredibly advanced laboratory swooping through the plumes of Enceladus, I want a sub cruising the methane oceans of Titan – I guess I just want us to go places and do things. But SLS? I have my doubts.
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Launch. Land. Repeat: A history of the VTVL Rocket – Part 3


“I know how to get the U.S. permanently into space. Write me a check for a billion dollars, give me a letter of credit for a second billion I probably won’t have to spend, and get out of the way. I’ll take the money and vanish into the Mojave desert, China Lake for preference, Edwards Air Force Base if I must; and in about four years I’ll have a Single Stage to Orbit savable as well as recoverable and reusable spacecraft capable of putting about ten thousand pounds into orbit at costs of about five times the cost of the fuel the flight takes.”

This quote from and sci-fi author and aerospace industry veteran Jerry Pournelle dates to the early days of what would later become the DC-X. Pournelle was one of many space enthusiasts actively lobbying for a small SSTO project with minimal organisational oversight. As seen in Part 2, the DC-X project found it’s ‘Skunk Works’ home in the Strategic Defence Initiative Organisation (SDIO), but Pournelle’s words turned out to be prophetic – they would just take a while to happen and the innovators behind these projects would be able to write their own billion dollar cheques…
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Sea Dragons & Skycycles: The life and rockets of Bob Truax

Traux’s colossal Sea Dragon afloat pre-launch beside an Aircraft Carrier [IMG: Aerojet General]
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.
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