Last year, reusable rockets entered the mainstream, and there’s no going back

Last year, reusable rockets entered the mainstream, and there's no going back

The idea of ​​reusing rockets finally became mainstream in 2020. As the year progressed, it became apparent that SpaceX launch customers had acquired a lot More comfortable in flying on used or “proven” early stages of a Falcon 9 rocket. A commercial customer, Sirius, launched its XM-7 satellite on the seventh flight of a Falcon 9 booster in December. Also, the first national security payload flew on a re-used booster last month when the US National Reconnaissance Office launched its NROL-18 mission on the fifth flight of the first stage of the Falcon 9.

NASA has also agreed to send future manned missions to the International Space Station – beginning with the Crew-2 space flight in the spring of 2021 – on used Falcon 9 rockets. And the US Space Force said Its GPS III satellites will launch on used boosters in the future as well. This is among the most valuable missions the United States has.

Another important step came when the second US launch company, Rocket Lab, began offering to reuse missiles. Throughout 2020, the company experimented with methods to protect the re-entry of an electron its first phase while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Then, He regained the electron phase For the first time in November.

“When we look back to 2020, we’ll say this year was a watershed moment,” Randy Kendall, vice president of launches and projects for The Aerospace Corporation, said in an interview. “All commercial, civil and national security missions have indicated their intention to launch their most valuable payloads on previously launched missiles.”

A long time is coming

NASA deserves recognition for its pioneering work in reusable spaceflight. The space shuttle was the world’s first partially reusable launch system, with orbiting and solid rocket boosters capable of multiple flights after major revamp. But it wasn’t cheap –Best independent estimate The cost of the shuttle over the life of the program is about $ 1.5 billion per launch.

In the 1990s, NASA funded the Delta Clipper program for vertical takeoff and vertical landing testing. Ultimately, it will launch 12x reusable DC-X vehicles from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, reaching a maximum altitude of 3 km. The program was canceled in 1996 after an accident and due to a lack of funding.

With a Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX carried a vertical launch and landing concept of a rocket. And from the shuttle, SpaceX learned that building a reusable rocket was not enough. The launch vehicle should also be reusable quickly and cheaply. SpaceX is getting there, cutting turnaround times to using the Falcon 9 core to less than two months. Although the Falcon 9 is smaller and less capable than the shuttle, its cost per mission is significantly more than $ 50 million, or 3 percent of shuttle flight.

“People who have been in the industry for a while have been looking at this, hoping it will happen for a while, and then suddenly you have a tipping point,” Kendall said. “There was no doubt that physics could be invaded, it was about whether the economy could be conquered. In the future, I think most companies will reuse some of the items. Everyone I talk to thinks about it. Europeans, Chinese and Russians all have plans for reuse. Within the next decade. “

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Falcon 9

It has now been five years since SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket in December 2015. Since then, the company has returned about 70 additional missiles and launched the missile 49 times. During the same time period, SpaceX’s main competitor, United Launch Alliance, launched the Atlas V expendable missile 26 times.

“We have carried more proven reinforcements for flights than Atlas has flown in the past five years,” said Gwen Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer. Because the early stages of the recycled Falcon 9 flew a lot and completed its basic missions 100 percent successfully, SpaceX customers and their insurance companies gained confidence in the car.

“We show what we show,” said Shotwell. “On the commercial side, the insurance community has responded appropriately. There’s no premium to pay for a proven flight. I remember giving my first briefing to an insurance guarantor saying, ‘Look, you guys want people to fly the flight has been proven. You’ll see it’s easier to get off.” From deck when you have already used this missile. You are eliminating problems on the first flight. “

By investing in reuse, SpaceX was not only able to significantly lower its cost per launch, but it also freed up a lot of factory space at its flagship plant in Hawthorne, California, because it no longer needed to build nine new Merlin engines and a Phase 1 core. For every trip.

“It’s great that we don’t have to get 40 spots in one year with the Falcon 9, because we’ve been trying to figure out what the plant is planning to do that,” Shotwell said. “And the boost production obviously takes up a lot of floor space. Not having to build 40 boosters a year greatly helps the company’s ability to be flexible and do work on other projects, no doubt about that. We’ve moved some Falcon people to Dragon We are moving some Falcon and Dragon personnel to the Starship, of course. “

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Rocket Lab strives to increase its production capabilities through reuse as well. By reusing the first phase one time, Rocket Lab co-founder Peter Beck said the company can double its production capacity and meet customer demand.

Beck said he was originally skeptical about reuse, especially for smaller orbital missiles. When Rocket Lab first started developing its Electron missile nearly a decade ago, SpaceX had yet to land a Falcon 9 rocket. In fact, when SpaceX built its first rocket, the smaller Falcon 1 – slightly larger than an electron – the company tried to reuse it. For each mission, a parachute was supposed to extend from the first stage. But SpaceX never came close to successfully hunting Falcon 1 off the ocean.

Only in 2017 and 2018, when an electron began flying and Beck studied the flight data, did he come to the belief that his missile could be safely returned to Earth. Now, after completing some preliminary testing and planning more recoveries in 2021, Beck is transformed.

“If Rocket Lab builds a new car, it will be essentially reusable from day one,” he said. “I am really surprised to see new cars in development now that are not reusable.”

Image listing Trevor Mahlman

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