Reusable rockets: revolutionizing access to outer space
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Circular economy isn’t limited to within our atmosphere. It will also assist in enhancing our satellite systems and could also lead us into space tourism.

On a crisp December night in 2015 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, an explosion eats up the darkness. A roar of burning liquid oxygen fills the air, reaches deafening point then begins to settle as the last flames gutter down and the Falcon 9 reusable rocket makes its first successful return. A hundred or so SpaceX engineers and technicians cry, laugh and jump into hugs. Two years and a couple of months later, the first re-flight of a landed first-stage booster takes place.

And so began the revolutionizing of journeys to outer space, and of the CO2 footprint of rocket launches. Since then, recovering of Falcon 9 boosters has become routine and in June this year SpaceX succeeded in recovering the expensive fairing rocket part, also known as the rocket’s nose cone. This was done with Ms.Tree, a modified offshore supply vessel equipped with a giant net. For their next-generation launch rocket, Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), SpaceX aims for 100% reusability. BFR is planned to be available around the mid 2020s, with potential for a variety of applications such as launching satellites, and carrying cargo and crew to space stations, the Moon and Mars. Elon Musk has even suggested that the BFR could be used for high-speed travel between earth destinations, carrying out any long-distance flights in less than 1 hour at a speed of 27000km/h.    

Meanwhile, Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos’ space venture Blue Origin is also promoting reusability. Their suborbital rocket New Shepherd is designed to take astronauts and research payloads past the Kármán line at 100km altitude, the internationally recognized boundary of space. The whole voyage will take 11 minutes, with the crew capsule returning to ground with parachutes. This New Shepard rocket uses fins, drag breaks and a powerful liquid rocket engine (BE-3) to reduce speed down to 8km/h for landing: a feature described by Blue Origin as gentle for potential space tourists1. While the New Shepard is just for suborbital use, Blue Origin plans to build reusability into their next heavy-lift rocket, New Glenn, which is currently being built.         

If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred. A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space. Elon Musk

Enabling space business

SpaceX and Blue Origin are frontrunners in the reusable rocket development and have a legion of private companies following suit behind them. Reusable parts drastically lower the costs of launch, in turn lowering the barrier of access to space. NASA have calculated that commercial launch costs to the International Stations has been reduced by a factor of 4 over the last 20 years. The corresponding number for commercial launch costs to LEO orbit is 20, from the $54,500/kg cost of NASA Space shuttles to $2,720/kg and $1,410/kg for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 (2010) and Falcon Heavy (2018)2.

Although this reduction is caused by many factors, including changes in design, development and manufacturing processes, a significant component of the reduction can be attributed to the use of the reusable instead of expendable hardware. This will lower the costs for satellite launches and drive development of satellite megaconstellations used for communication and Earth Observations. While this lowers the barrier to space access and potentially enables tourism, getting a commercial seat will likely be luxury affair3. Further, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has indicated that commercial crew projects are currently years behind schedule4.

Other key technologies impacting the development are:

  • Autonomous controllers and sensors used to perform propulsive landings  
  • Parachutes to reduce speeds after entering the atmosphere    
  • Airbags to absorb the shock when landing on hard surface
  • Autonomous barges serving as landing platforms for rockets performing vertical propulsive landings at sea
  • Special purpose ships equipped with giant nets to catch smaller rocket parts like fairings.    

A launch vehicle is subject to enormous forces and the number of reuse cycles, which is essential for cost savings, will depend on robust design and materials. For manned missions, there must be extremely high confidence that the rocket is not degraded after previous missions which requires further development and testing. It has taken many years of adjustments and testing to achieve reliable recovery of the booster stage, and recovery of fairings has also proven to be more difficult than expected. Successful reuse of remaining parts may require improvements in heat shielding and landing engines. SpaceX have stated that most parts of Falcon 9 rocket will withstand 100 launches, although heat shielding and some other parts must be replaced every 10th launch5.  Meanwhile, Blue Origin’s New Glenn is designed for 25 cycles6.

However, given the success with Blue Origin’s New Shepherd and SpaceX’s Falcon 9, the concept of reuse is already proven and we should expect this development to continue, with a major impact from rockets with long-range and heavy-lift capabilities in the next decade. As Greg Autry of the National Space Society put it, “Launch cost has always been the primary constraint in the space business. If access to space weren’t so expensive we’d have an astounding amount of entrepreneurial activity in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and beyond. Space tourism, materials development, pharmaceutical research, power generation, communications, earth imaging and national security all have “killer apps” just waiting for reliable and affordable access to space.”7


DNV GL is grateful to Gordon Campbell, Director, Science, Applications and Future Technologies Department, Directorate of EO Programmes at the European Space Agency (ESA) and Dag Anders Moldestad Senior Advisor at the Norwegian Space Agency for the valuable discussions.

Main author: Steinar Lag

Editor: Tiffany Hildre

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