The idea of reusing missiles finally became mainstream in 2020. As the year progressed, it became clear that SpaceX’s launch customers very much more comfortable flying on used or “proven” first stages of the 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 repurposed booster last month when the US National Reconnaissance Office launched its NROL-108 mission on the fifth flight of a Falcon 9 first stage.
NASA also agreed to fly future manned missions to the International Space Station — beginning with Crew-2 spaceflight in spring 2021 — on used Falcon 9 rockets. And the US Space Force said it would launch its GPS III satellites on used boosters in the future as well. These are among the most valuable missions the United States has.
Another important step came when a second US launch company, Rocket Lab, began demonstrating rocket reuse. In 2020, the company experimented with ways to protect the reentry of its first Electron stage during reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. Then it restored an Electron trap for the first time in November.
“Looking back at 2020, we’ll say this year was a turning point,” Randy Kendall, vice president of launch and operations for The Aerospace Corporation, said in an interview. “Commercial, civilian and national security missions have all signaled their intention to fly their most valuable payload on previously flown missiles.”
NASA deserves credit for pioneering work in reusable spaceflight. The space shuttle was the world’s first partially reusable launch system, with the orbiter and solid rocket boosters capable of multiple flights after extensive renovation. But it wasn’t cheap — the best independent estimate of the shuttle’s cost over the program’s lifetime is about $1.5 billion per launch.
In the 1990s, NASA then funded the Delta Clipper program to test vertical takeoff and vertical landing. Ultimately, it would launch 12 reusable DC-X vehicles from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, reaching a maximum height of 3 km. The program was canceled in 1996 after an accident and due to lack of funds.
With its Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX continued the concept of vertically launching and landing a rocket. And from the shuttle, SpaceX learned that it wasn’t enough to build a reusable rocket. A launch vehicle also had to be reusable quickly, and at a lower cost. SpaceX is getting there, as it has cut lead times for using a Falcon 9 core to less than two months. And while the Falcon 9 is smaller and less capable than the shuttle, the cost per mission is significantly less than $50 million, or 3 percent of a shuttle flight.
“People who have been in this industry for a while looked at this and hoped for a while that it would happen, and then all of a sudden you have a tipping point,” said Kendall. “There was no doubt that physics could be conquered, it was a question of whether economics could be conquered. In the future I think most companies will have some sort of reuse of elements. Everyone I’ve talked to thinks about it na. The Europeans, Chinese and Russians all have plans for reuse in the next decade.”
It has now been five years since SpaceX successfully landed a Falcon 9 rocket in December 2015. Since then, the company has returned about 70 additional rockets and re-flighted a booster 49 times. During the same period, SpaceX’s main competitor, United Launch Alliance, has flown 26 times with its replaceable Atlas V rocket.
“We’ve flown more boosters in the past five years than Atlas has flown,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and chief operating officer. Because the first stages of recycled Falcon 9 have flown many times and completed their primary missions with 100 percent success, SpaceX customers and their insurers have gained confidence in the vehicle.
“We demonstrate what we demonstrate,” Shotwell said. “On the commercial side, the insurance community responded appropriately. There is no premium to pay for proven flights. I remember doing the first briefing to the insurer and saying, ‘Look, you want people to fly flight proven You’ll see it’s easier to get off the deck if you’ve already flown that missile. You wring out the trouble on the first flight.'”
By investing in reuse, SpaceX has not only been able to significantly reduce its cost per launch, but has also freed up a lot of factory space at its main plant in Hawthorne, California, as it no longer needs to build nine new Merlin engines and a first stage core for every flight.
“It’s great that with Falcon 9, we didn’t have to get 40 cores in a year because we were trying to figure out the factory layout to do that,” Shotwell said. “And of course, booster production takes up a lot of floor space. The fact that you don’t have to build 40 boosters in a year is super helpful for the company’s ability to bend and work on other projects, there’s no such thing no doubt about that. We’ve moved some Falcon people to Dragon We’re moving some Falcon and Dragon people to Starship, of course.”
Rocket Lab also wants to increase its production capabilities through reuse. By reusing a first stage once, Peter Beck, co-founder of Rocket Lab, said the company could double its production capacity and meet customer demand.
Beck said he was initially skeptical about reuse, especially for smaller orbital rockets. When Rocket Lab began developing its Electron rocket nearly a decade ago, SpaceX hadn’t successfully landed a Falcon 9 rocket. When SpaceX built its first rocket, the smaller Falcon 1 — just a little bit bigger than Electron — the company had even tried to reuse it. Each mission required a parachute to extend from the first stage. But SpaceX never came close to successfully fishing an intact Falcon 1 first stage out of the ocean.
It wasn’t until 2017 and 2018, when Electron began flying and Beck studied flight data, that he came to believe that his rocket could be safely returned to Earth. Now, after completing some preliminary tests and planning more recovery in 2021, Beck has become a convert.
“If Rocket Lab ever builds a new vehicle, it will be fundamentally reusable from day one,” he said. “I’m really surprised to see new vehicles in development that aren’t reusable.”
List image by Trevor Mahlmann