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The Importance of Reusable Launch Vehicles

Updated: Aug 2

Since the beginning of the space exploring era, the cosmologists had one question, which demanded the answer as soon as possible: how can we travel the space more efficiently?

The reusable launch vehicles have finally decreased the cost of space exploration and opened many opportunities for space travelers. In 2020 the notion of re-using rockets had taken a new, more exciting turn, and there is no going back.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket that can deliver payloads and bring humans into space. The Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy include lower rocket stages that may be returned upright to Earth or a drone ship in the ocean. Just before landing, four lightweight carbon fiber legs deploy, each with a shock-absorbing mechanism to cushion the impact. ''My vision is for a fully reusable rocket transport system between Earth and Mars that is able to re-fuel on Mars - this is very important - so you don't have to carry the return fuel when you go there.'' - Elon Musk

The first triumphant launch of reusable rocket Falcon 9 happened in 2015. After two years of trying to create the perfect reusable vehicle for space travel, Falcon 9 did not fail the world by its robust and loud return on the earth. The company's next-generation launch rocket, Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), later renamed to Starship, aims for 100% reusability.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket touches down after launching the Transporter-2 mission.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket touches down after launching the Transporter-2 mission. (Image credit: SpaceX)

Starship became available around the mid-2020s, with potential for various applications including launching satellites and carrying cargo and crew to the Moon and Mars. Elon Musk also considers using Starship for the earth travels, shortening long flights to only one hour as the rocket can pick up a speed as high as 2700 km/h.

NASA should be commended for its groundbreaking work in reusable spaceflight. The space shuttle was the first partially reusable launch vehicle in the world. SpaceX advanced the notion of vertically launching and landing a rocket with its Falcon 9 rocket. And, although being smaller and less capable than the shuttle, the Falcon 9's per-mission cost is far less than $50 million.

Blue Origin, a rocket company owned by Jeff Bezos, has also unveiled its first suborbital rocket – New Shepard, designed to carry passengers and payloads past the Kármán line to a height of 100 kilometers. The crew capsule will return to the ground with parachutes after an 11-minute journey. Blue Origin intends to incorporate reusability into their next heavy-lift rocket, the New Glenn, presently under construction.

The New Shepard booster after returning to the landing pad.

The New Shepard booster after returning to the landing pad. (Image credit: Blue Origin)

The paramount importance of reusable launch rockets is decreasing the cost of space travel. Using reusable rockets rather than disposable hardware is mainly responsible for this reduction. While this lowers the barrier to space access and may open the door to tourism, obtaining a commercial seat is likely a high-end experience.

Recovery of the booster stage has taken several years of changes and testing, and recovery of fairings has also proven to be more difficult than predicted. Most sections of the Falcon 9 rocket, according to SpaceX, will last for 100 launches, while heat shielding and other parts will need to be changed every tenth mission.

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Blue Origin's New Glenn, on the other hand, is rated for 25 cycles. Parachutes, airbags, and barges for landing rockets on hard surfaces, as well as enormous nets to catch minor pieces like fairings, are all essential technological developments of reusable launch vehicles.

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