Reusability Isn’t Here – Yet

ORBCOMM-2 First-stage landing. Credit: SpaceX

ORBCOMM-2 First-stage landing. Credit: SpaceX

For many, the end of 2015 marked the beginning of a new era in space access.

On Dec. 21, SpaceX successfully landed a Falcon 9 first stage back at Cape Canaveral 10 minutes after liftoff. That successful landing came almost a month after Blue Origin successfully landed the propulsion module of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle after a test flight to the edge of space in West Texas.

Those achievements have been heralded as the arrival of reusable launch vehicles, the Holy Grail of spaceflight. Yet, while those landings were technically impressive, we’re still a long way from reusability and the low-cost access to space long promised from such vehicles.

First of all, neither vehicle has been reused yet. In a brief call with reporters immediately after the Falcon 9 landing, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said the stage would not be flown again. Instead, it will be used for ground tests and then, perhaps, put on display as a historic artifact. A reflight of a first stage will come after a mission later in 2016, he promised.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos said after the New Shepard flight in November that the company would refly the vehicle. However, the notoriously secretive company hasn’t offered any more details about its test flight plans.

Those test flights are important to address unanswered technical issues with reusability. How much maintenance is needed between flights? What components are most susceptible to wear and tear? How F many times can a stage be reused?

The answers to those technical questions will drive economic ones, including how much less a reusable launch might cost. Musk, for example, has suggested that launch costs could drop by a factor of 100 for reusable vehicles, covering little more than the cost of rocket fuel.

We don’t yet know, though, if this “gas and go” approach will work for launch vehicles. If rockets require more maintenance between flights, or can only be safely used a few times, the economics of reusability will be less promising than Musk’s vision — shared by Bezos — of dramatic reductions in the cost of space access.

What is clear, though, is that the launch industry is taking reusability more seriously than it has in decades, if ever. In the last year, United Launch Alliance and Airbus have proposed recovering and reusing the first stage engines of their next-generation vehicles. That increased interest is a dramatic change from just a few years ago, when many launch providers expressed indifference, if not outright derision, towards the concept of reusability.

Blue Origin’s and SpaceX’s recent accomplishments may well encourage others to consider reusable vehicles of their own, despite the uncertain technical and economic challenges such vehicles still face.

That is, ultimately, a good thing for the industry.

The more people who seek the Holy Grail, the more likely it is someone will find it.