In three weeks, Spacex could demonstrate the first reusable rocket booster and pave the way to radically cheaper spaceflight

This Sunday, After sending cargo towards the International Space Station, the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket used for the flight will return nearly immediately after liftoff and return and fire its engines for the second time. The burn will allow the rocket to reenter the atmosphere in controlled flight, without breaking up and disintegrating on the way down as most booster rockets do.

The launch was delayed to March 30th.

The machine will settle over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of its Cape Canaveral launchpad, engines roaring, and four landing legs will unfold from the rocket’s sides. Hovering over ocean, the rocket will kick up a salt spray along with the flames and smoke. Finally, the engines will cut off and the rocket will drop the last few feet into the ocean for recovery by a waiting barge.

Future flights of the so-called F9R rocket will have it touching down on land. For now, a water landing ensures maximum safety in case the rocket goes off course.

After recovering the rocket from the water on Sunday, SpaceX engineers and technicians will study it to determine what it would take to refurbish such a rocket for reuse. SpaceX also has plans to recover and reuse the second stage rocket, but for now, it will recover only the first stage and its nine Merlin engines, which make up the bulk of the cost of the rocket.

Even without reusable rockets, SpaceX has already shaken up the $190-billion-a-year satellite launch market with radically lower launch costs than its competitors. The company advertises $55.6 million per Falcon 9 launch. Its competitors are less forthcoming about how much they charge, but French rocket company Arianespace has indicated that it may ask for an increase in government subsidies to remain competitive with SpaceX.

SpaceX is vying for so-called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, contracts to launch satellites for the U.S. Air Force. Its only competitor for the contracts, United Launch Alliance, charges $380 million per launch.

Musk testified before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense meeting on March 5 that his company can cut that cost down to $90 million per launch. He said the higher cost for a government mission versus a commercial one was due to a lack of government-provided launch insurance. “So, in order to improve the probability of success, there is quite a substantial mission assurance overhead applied,” Musk said in the hearing. Still, SpaceX’s proposed charge for the Air Force missions is a mere 23 percent of ULA’s.

SpaceX is counting on lower launch costs to increase demand for launch services. But Foust cautions that this strategy comes with risk. “It’s worth noting,” he says, “that many current customers of launch services, including operators of commercial satellites, aren’t particularly price sensitive, so thus aren’t counting on reusability to lower costs.”

That means those additional launches, and thus revenue, may have to come from markets that don’t exist yet. “A reusable system with much lower launch costs might actually result in lower revenue for that company unless they can significantly increase demand,” says Foust. “That additional demand would likely have to come from new markets, with commercial human spaceflight perhaps the biggest and best-known example.”

There was an analysis of a reusable launch system where the cost of developing the reusable launch system was $36 billion. If Spacex is successful they will have developed reusability for about $100 million.

There were also prior ideas involving large ground infrastructure such as giant magnetic launching systems

“The payload penalty for full and fast reusability versus an expendable version is roughly 40 percent,” Musk says. “[But] propellant cost is less than 0.4 percent of the total flight cost. Even taking into account the payload reduction for reusability, the improvement is therefore theoretically over a hundred times.”

A hundred times is an incredible gain. It would drop cost for Musk’s Falcon Heavy rocket—a scaled-up version of the Falcon 9 that’s currently rated at $1000 per pound to orbit—to just $10. “That, however, requires a very high flight rate, just like aircraft,” Musk says. “At a low flight rate, the improvement is still probably around 50 percent. For Falcon Heavy, that would mean a price per pound to orbit of less than $500.

Falcon Heavy is particularly amenable to reuse of the first stage—the two outer cores in particular, because they separate at a much lower velocity than the center one, being dropped off early in the flight.

Turnaround Time

Bringing down the cost of rocket launches isn’t just about reusability; as Musk’s quote suggests, it’s also about turnaround time. The original premise of the space shuttle program was that the vehicle would be turned around within days; it ended up being months, which is one of the reasons that it never met its cost goals.

What about a reusable Falcon? Musk says he expects “single-digit hours” between landing and next flight, at least for the lower stages. “For the upper stage, there is the additional constraint of the orbit ground track needing to overfly the landing pad, since cross-range [the distance to a landing site that it can fly to either side of its original entry flight path] is limited. At most this adds 24 hours to the upper-stage turnaround.”

Translation: One of the other reasons that the shuttle was so expensive was that it had very large wings to give the vehicle a thousand miles of cross-range. The Air Force demanded this feature, which would have allowed the shuttle to return to its launch site after a single orbit, though it was never used. But SpaceX doesn’t mandate that cross-range feature. Therefore its craft would have to wait a little bit for the Earth to rotate and bring the landing site around again, but this would make SpaceX missions cheaper because the rockets don’t have to carry so much propellant in this stage.

What does it imply for flight rate? “Multiple flights per day for first stage and side boosters,” Musk says. “At least one flight per day for the upper stage” (which costs much less, anyway).

So what does that mean for ticket prices in the future? Musk tells us that with daily flights, the cost will run about $100 per pound. For the average male, that means about 20,000 bucks. Start saving your money.

Is there demand for forty thousand flight per year ? 100 space flights per day at $100 per pound ?

There were 77 successful orbital launches in 81 attempts in 2013.

Those launches were for about $2000-8,000 per pound.

There are new far more capable cubesats. Having a lot of lower cost payload would boost demand for low cost launches.

Planetary Resources is making $1 million space telescopes.

Bigelow Aerospace wants to launch inflatable space stations for space hotels and for space stations for every nation with a space program.

Commercial satellites generate about $150 billion per year in revenue and use about $4 billion in launch services.

Daily launches of one reusable rocket is 365 launches. If you have 100 reusable rockets all flying daily then you need demand for 36,500 launches. If the payload capacity is 8 to 50 tons. This would be 180,000 tons to 1.8 million tons.

There would be need for more launch facilities.

There would need to be a system for rapidly prepping the payloads. Some kind of standard container system for loading them. A space version of a shipping container.

SOURCE- Technology Review, Popular Mechanics, NASA, Mikesnead.net, youtube

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