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,