Europe Tentatively Considers Copying SpaceX While China Has Four Companies Racing to Catchup

Europe has provided 3 million euros in funding for a three year investigation of reusable rockets. This program is not funded to actually build or fly any vehicles. They want to agree on specifics of two designs.

Europe is tentatively starting a low commitment reusable rocket program nine years after SpaceX announced their program. Europe is looking to take three years to do what SpaceX did in less than one year. Europe might get to where SpaceX was in 2015 in 2035. Meanwhile, China has at least four companies eagerly chasing SpaceX. One of China’s companies is at the Blue Origin level of supersonic sub-orbital tests.

In Reusable rockets we appear to have:
First Mover – SpaceX
Fast Followers – Blue Origin and Chinese Long March and China startups
Late Entrant – Europe

The fast followers hope to be only 6 years behind SpaceX if they get a successful orbital launch and recovery of 20 tons or more by 2021. However, they could easily be ten years behind. The fast followers will likely be getting to partial reusability equal to a Falcon 9 while trying to compete with SpaceX who will be using a fully reusable Super Heavy Starship (SHS). SpaceX will be able to launch 5 times more payload or more in each launch. Many of the fast followers are going for small payloads. SpaceX costs could be ten to one hundred times less per launch. The SHS could have costs of about $3-4 million per launch. SpaceX could be amortizing rockets over 100 reused launches.

China will be willing to subsidize rocket companies by overpaying for military and government launches on domestic launchers. China would be willing to do this forever until their rockets caught up.

Blue Origin would likely become the second choice provider in the USA and they would have engine technology sales to ULA and others. The US military wants to keep a second launch provider alive. Jeff Bezos is willing to subsidize Blue Origin to the tune of $1 billion in losses per year. If Amazon keeps going then Jeff does not run out of money at that level.

However, Blue Origin would not be catching up to SpaceX because SpaceX already has about $2.5 billion in revenue per year and Starlink success and SHS would send SpaceX to tens of billions per year in revenue.

China and Blue Origin

China is planning a reusability test in 2020 for a new Long March rocket. There are at least three Chinese rocket startups launching and testing reusable rockets.

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is working towards reusable rockets and has had supersonic sub-orbital tests. Blue Origin has not launched any rocket to orbit despite starting before SpaceX. SpaceX has had about 75 successful launches delivering payloads to orbit for customers.

In May 2018, China startup i-Space said they would develop a reusable sub-orbital spaceplane for space tourism. Space Transportation is a launcher manufacturer which aims at developing reusable rockets for small payloads (100 – 1000 kg payload capacity on its Tian Xing – 1 rocket. China has a dozen rocket start-ups and almost all are aiming for the small payload range. Linkspace and iSpace started working on reusable rockets in 2014.

Space Transportation is looking at a gliding and a parachute system instead of SpaceX-style retropropulsive landing. SpaceX tried and failed to make parachutes work for stage recovery.

Chinese startups Space Transportation and LinkSpace are performing reusable rocket tests now. They are at the Advanced Grasshopper stage or the Blue Origin supersonic sub-orbital stage.

Blue Origin plans to launch a person above 60 miles by the end of the year. On nearly every one of the Blue Origin test flights since 2015, the uncrewed vehicle has reached a test altitude of more than 100 km (330,000 ft) and achieved a top speed of more than Mach 3 (3,675 km/h; 2,284 mph), reaching space above the Kármán line, with both the space capsule and its rocket booster successfully soft landing.

Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket which would be close to the Falcon Heavy in capability could have an orbital test by 2021.

April 22, 2019, Space Transportation carried out a test April 22 in northwest China in cooperation with Xiamen University, launching a 3,700-kilogram technology demonstrator named Jiageng-1. The Jiageng-1 reaching a maximum altitude of 26.2 kilometers and a top speed of above 4,300 kilometers per hour. The rocket was recovered at a designated landing site.

March 27, Linkspace had another low-altitude untethered launch and landing test of its RLV-T5 tech demonstrator with a second launch and recovery. The 8.1-meter-tall, 1.5-metric-ton rocket reached a height of 40 meters — double that of the first test — and achieved a greater landing accuracy.

A test to send the vehicle to an altitude closer to 1,000 meters is planned for later in the year, as is the final assembly of the RLV-T6 suborbital reusable rocket.

Linkspace plans future development of a reusable second stage. This would be in a future New Line 3 rocket.

China startup LinkSpace is planning to be a transport and rocket services company, providing rocket parts, and transportation. They plan reusable rockets to send packages from one point on Earth to another point. This is similar to SpaceX’s plan for suborbital rocket passenger transport anywhere around the world, and to rocket mail plans with Super Heavy Starship.

SpaceX flew its first reusability test vehicle, the Grasshopper, in 2012 after announcing it in 2011. As of June, 2018, SpaceX has successfully landed 45 boosters and reused 20 recovered boosters.

Eight Block 5 boosters are potentially available for future reflights. SpaceX intentionally limited Block 3 and Block 4 boosters to flying only two missions each. Block 5 versions to achieve 10 flights each without major refurbishment and up to 100 with regular refurbishment.

The three-year RETALT program will get to where SpaceX was in 2012 by around 2022. However, SpaceX moved very quickly to using tens of millions of dollars in hardware for hop tests. SpaceX first achieved a successful landing and recovery of a first stage in December 2015. The first re-flight of a landed first stage occurred in March 2017. SpaceX can now turn around boosters for reuse in about two months and SpaceX is targeting 24 turnaround. SpaceX could reuse 93% of the Falcon Heavy (two boosters, one core booster and the payload fairings.) SpaceX is developing the fully reusable Super Heavy Starship.

Details of the RETALT Investigation of Reusability

The two main scientific and technological objectives of the RETALT project are:

* To investigate Launch system re-usability technology of VTVL TSTO RLV
applying retro propulsion combined with the use of aerodynamic control surfaces which is currently dominating the global market.
* To investigate Launch system re-usability technology of VTVL SSTO RLV
applying retro propulsion for future space transportation systems.

To meet these two objectives two reference configurations have been defined:

* A configuration similar to the SpaceX rocket “Falcon 9” that will be the reference for the state-of-the-art TSTO RLV.

* A configuration similar to the DC-X that will serve as reference for a SSTO RLV.

The measures of success for RETALT are to meet the challenging objectives are the aerodynamic and aerothermal concepts, GNC concept, structures and mechanisms for landing and an estimation of required developments and costs to reach TRL 8/9. The overall measure of success is the development of convergent designs that combine all the investigated technologies to feasible concepts of vertical landing launchers.

SOURCES- Wikipedia, Space News, RETALT, Blue Origin
Written By Brian Wang,

32 thoughts on “Europe Tentatively Considers Copying SpaceX While China Has Four Companies Racing to Catchup”

  1. treats it like SpaceX hasn’t already settled the direction of future designs….it has? by what metric? certainly not ROI.
    There are plenty of concepts out there. Europe has been actively researching reusable craft since the 90ties. To settle on anything is a meaningless statement. It doesn’t even depend on a specific design direction as much as operational economics.

  2. Something I was thinking about. Something like the Saturn IB, but that some tanks scissor past one another for drag–and to deploy landing legs, with webbing in between.

  3. Well. Not all European reusable rocket programs are part of the ESA stable. Do some more research and you’ll find quite a variety of interesting projects.

  4. Look man, a planet is a more buffered environment, with more protection against space radiation, etc. It’s easier to protect against vacuum & temperature as well as chemical toxicity, than it is to protect against radiation.

  5. SpaceX talked about Mars, then the Moon and now Starlink.
    The Real Deal is the Military. Being able to life huge payloads
    into orbit cheaply and reliably is a Big Deal. One launch in 2017
    or 2018 for the US military was described as being essentially
    “for free” because of the cost of the Falcon launch.
    This obviously is going to be military game changer.

  6. It drives me nuts as well. Instead of focusing how to build bigger houses, faster transportations, better everything, Europe is focusing how to shave another percent of its carbon emissions. But of course fracking and nuclear is out of the question

  7. Musk said they’ll use SSTO for P2P travel on Earth, which implies that SSTO does have more operational practicality than TSTO

  8. No, they can’t airbreathe all the way to orbit.
    Once you get fast enough the kinetic energy transfers in catching the air become much, much larger than the chemical energy you can generate by burning fuel in that air.

    So at 5000 m/s you have a kg of air which (relative to the ship) has a 12.5MJ of kinetic energy, you inject hydrogen and burn it to get an additional 0.62 MJ

    1 kg air = 200 g O2 = 12.5 mol burns with 25 mol H = 25 g which gives 620 kJ

    So the maximum chemical energy you can add is less than 5% of the existing kinetic energy. Unless your jet is more than 95% efficient you will slow down rather than speed up.

    And that’s at 5000 m/s. To reach orbit you need to reach 8000 m/s which means it is (8/5)^2 = 2.6 times harder. Your jet needs to be more than 98% efficient just to produce any thrust at all.

    Good luck with that.

    Note that the article linked too above mentions that they would carry liquid oxygen and inject it to turn the motor into a rocket once they get high and fast enough.

  9. Beg to differ! Globus ELEO far superior/cheaper to Mars or Moon habitation. Mining will require some people, but you don’t want to live on a planet, as we all should know by now. Way too hard! And the O’Neill advantage increases with scale, esp when the pop goes to tril.

  10. Nice sci-fi ideas but outrageously expensive compared to the surface of Mars or even the moon with rotating artificial-gravity habitats..

  11. Perhaps; Composite tanks are just a bad idea where cryogenic fuels are involved, due to differential thermal expansion of the fiber and binder. They can only be free of internal stress at one temperature.

  12. There bis no such thing as “Europe”, there is continet that is home to dozens of countries, none of them significant. Sum of 0’s is still 0.

  13. Can you imagine that. I suspect the real reason DCX was cancelled is it had the potential of working so well that politicians couldn’t see how billions and billions and billions of dollars a year could be spent on it making them miss out on graft and corruption. So it’s, Hey I know let’s build SLS !!!

  14. What? Nobody is copying the NASA model? But they spend billions and billions and billions of dollars on it a year?

  15. Poor Europe. 

    I kind of feel sorry for her. The dear old Nanny (goat!) of half-a-billion diverse and determinedly nationalist folk finds herself committing, oh, ⁶⁄₁₀¢ per citizen … over 3 years … or ⅕¢ (€¹⁄₆₀₀) per person per year on her space program.  

    Well, shiver me timbers. Better employ 7 accountants to oversee that budget and make sure it doesn’t get misspent on TOO many cappuccinos.  


  16. I love me some Muskiness but I think Bezos has the better strategic outlook with O’Neill cylinders. And they don’t have to be giant, mile-wide behemoths. Start out with small habitats and work your way up.

  17. The point is not that they ran out of funding.
    The point is: given that the program was looking so promising, why was it not given more funding?

    Though…. given that SpaceX has abandoned composite material tanks even with the benefit of years more advanced technology, maybe the program was headed in the wrong direction and they knew it.

  18. Yes, your comment about SSTO meaning reusable as a mental shorthand made a lot of things clear when you first said it.

    For years a staged rocket meant throwing most of it away and that is kind of stuck in our heads as the default even though it’s no longer necessarily the case.

  19. Well some people make reusable rockets, some people make PPTs. To each their own I suppose.

  20. SSTO is irrelevant. What matters is re-usability and I have said for years that:

    SSTO was always just shorthand for reusability

    Meaning that SpaceX two stage rockets that are 100% reusable are just as good as SSTO, probably even better because they can have better safety margins, use better known engines and put more payload up per launch (e.g. 10x more per launch to LEO than Skylon).

  21. My thinking exactly. 3 Million Eur over 3 years will be enough to produce a working group white paper and some midling PPT diagrams.

    Total joke.

  22. “…treats it like SpaceX hasn’t already settled the direction of future designs…”

    You’ll have to give them a pass, some people prefer it when their digestive tract isn’t involved in making important decisions.

  23. The Delta Clipper Experimental Advanced was a modified version of the DC-X. It had a lightweight graphite-epoxy liquid hydrogen tank and an advanced graphite/aluminum honeycomb intertank built by McDonnell Douglas; an aluminum-lithium liquid oxygen tank built by Energia; and an improved reaction control system from Aerojet. These improvements reduced dry vehicle mass by 620 kilograms. The DC-XA was operated by NASA and the Department of Defense under the Reusable Launch Vehicle program. The flight vehicle was tested at White Sands during the summer of 1996, and demonstrated a 26-hour turnaround between its second and third flights, a first for any rocket. After the fourth flight, however, the DC-XA suffered severe damage and the program ended due to lack of funding.

  24. It really helps to know where you are going if you are trying to get there. Forget Mars! Bezos/O’Neill are the clear future, starting with Al Globus’ Equatorial Low Earth Orbit designs. Not that SpaceX rockets are a bad thing, but the design is already being influenced by wrong headed ideas about where to live. Hint: not on planets!

  25. Interesting that RETALT treats it like SpaceX hasn’t already settled the direction of future designs. Why would they still present SSTO as an objective? It looks like the €3M will be wasted on pointless summaries of options just to make them feel like they have options.

  26. 3 years of budget for making a committee studying potential designs and come with plans of what to do?

    Well, 3 million EUR is like the salaries, trips and catering expenses for such committees. So, it sounds about right.

    And yeah, they’re so dead in the water.

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