Reusable Rockets

“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

Update: SpaceX May Try Land-Based Rocket Landing This Month

Here’s the SpaceX plan:

For several years SpaceX has been working on the reusable rocket problem. They’ve been doing this in conjunction with developing a man-rated capsule for ferrying crew to orbit, along with development of the Falcon 9 Heavy. All of that is addition to running the day in, day out, business of manufacturing rockets from scratch and launching them.

Here’s a Falcon 9 Reusable test:

Once you make access to space inexpensive and routine everything changes. You can build things in orbit at a fraction of the cost of the ISS. People will routinely access orbit or beyond. Fuel and supplies can be lofted and docked to ships assembled in orbit, opening the solar system and beyond to human explorers.

And here is what reusablity allows. The habitation of space and, eventually, the opening of the universe.

“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff.” ~Carl Sagan

Ad astra per aspera

21 thoughts on “Reusable Rockets”

  1. Means that the cost of the cans (container plus rocket engine plus controls) has to exceed the cost of fuel to return the cans plus cost of fuel to lift the fuel to return the cans, plus cost of engine overhaul. Interesting idea. Dates to late 1950’s or early 1960’s. (Heard it first from my dad who worked on space projects, was proponent of what eventually became space shuttle when, as argued in “The Right Stuff” and similar, that shuttle idea was not thought either fast enough to develop or appealing enough to sell to taxpayers. The shuttle, note well, does not return on a flame of rocket exhaust, but uses friction on heat shields to slow enough to glide.)

    What looks good in animation does not necessarily tell what actually goes on in the real world.

    There is another idea, also with an early pedigree as known, eg, by those enjoying some of 1960s and earlier Robert Heinlein (cf The Moon is a Harsh Mistress): electric powered guns.

    I think lifting stuff via that technology a more likely eventual solution to getting lots of mass into space. That method does not require lifting the fuel that lifts the fuel that lifts the fuel. Reconditely, it bypasses limits imposed by the Rocket Equation.

    Of course that method faces different limits. Beyond the problems inherent to rail guns, there are two very huge obstacles: 1) how to keep the launch vehicle from folding on itself under accelerations much large than that used for rocket launches; 2) heat from air friction (unlike a rocket launch, where hi speeds are reached only at high altitudes with thin air, a rail launch means high speeds already when at low altitudes. (Think of engineering for heat in the SR-71 Blackbird.)

    Once in a while I find myself musing on an the analogy between commercial exploitation of space and commercial exploitation of the western hemisphere. The latter took over a hundred years to really get going, and involved technological developments (egs, Columbus proving the wind patterns that would allow sailing, changing keel design) fairly trivial compared to that needed for the latter.

  2. Just yesterday at work we were discussing building a ‘rail gun highway’ up the side of mountain and using it to launch supplies to orbit. I see no reason we can’t get that to work.

  3. ” heat from air friction (unlike a rocket launch, where hi speeds are reached only at high altitudes with thin air, a rail launch means high speeds already when at low altitudes.”

    A very interesting observation. I was thinking about that as I began to read your post.

    I originally thought of the space station as an assembly point for deep space but it became a typical government boondoggle, or so it seems to me.

  4. I see a space station as you do, a waypoint on the edge of the gravity well. A useful place to dock a large craft you can’t bring into the atmosphere, a place for people and supplies to transfer to ships to other places. Going out or going down?

  5. I’m waiting for the space elevator to a Hilton in geosynchronous orbit. I’m 75 (bunny years) so I don’t plan on waiting long.

  6. Mike and Michael, I think of the moon as the better choice for an assembly station. (Again a hat tip to Heinlein and others.)

    The lack of atmosphere at the moon removes the friction problem faced by an earth-bound real gun. Couple that with the reality that escape velocity is independent of direction provided that the direction of motion when escape velocity is reached is not aimed at the ground. Further add in the advantages of low gravity in building a rail gun track which has its exit end higher than the start end on the surface. (Building the track on the surface would not work. The projectile/vehicle would either lift of the track at far less than escape velocity, or if held to the track whirl its contents against the roof of the projectile.) The difference in height between start and exit allows for a much longer track, meaning more time to accelerate, meaning smaller acceleration forces. Meanwhile, the moon has some significant comparative advantages versus a space station using the rail gun at that station, advantages that could offset the energy loss of having to go down to the moon’s surface and then climb back out. The moon would provide a fixed surface for building. One could build under the surface to escape meteor damage. The moon’s gravity might suffice to bypass the long-term debilitation of of “zero gravity” in orbit. The moon might have resources, specifically water, that could serve a multitude of purposes.

  7. Roy says: Means that the cost of the cans …plus cost of engine overhaul.

    I don’t think the engines get overhauled. I think the plan is to just refuel and refly the rocket.

  8. If anyone can do this Musk can. There was a great article on him and Space-X in an issue of Air & Space; how he has cut the cost of many key components by simply reinventing them instead of buying “off the shelf” parts made from govt cost-plus contracts. Some parts have been reduced by a factor of 10.

  9. From a Wiki article on H-3:

    Extraterrestrial abundance:

    Materials on the Moon’s surface contain helium-3 at concentrations on the order of between 1.4 and 15 ppb in sunlit areas,and may contain concentrations as much as 50 ppb in permanently shadowed regions. A number of people, starting with Gerald Kulcinski in 1986, have proposed to explore the moon, mine lunar regolith and use the helium-3 for fusion. Because of the low concentrations of helium-3, any mining equipment would need to process extremely large amounts of regolith (over 150 million tonnes of regolith to obtain one ton of helium 3), and some proposals have suggested that helium-3 extraction be piggybacked onto a larger mining and development operation.

    The primary objective of Indian Space Research Organization’s first lunar probe called Chandrayaan-I, launched on October 22, 2008, was reported in some sources to be mapping the Moon’s surface for helium-3-containing minerals. However, this is debatable; no such objective is mentioned in the project’s official list of goals, while at the same time, many of its scientific payloads have noted helium-3-related applications.

    Cosmochemist and geochemist Ouyang Ziyuan from the Chinese Academy of Sciences who is now in charge of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program has already stated on many occasions that one of the main goals of the program would be the mining of helium-3, from which operation “each year three space shuttle missions could bring enough fuel for all human beings across the world.” To “bring enough fuel for all human beings across the world”, more than one Space Shuttle load (and the processing of 4 million tonnes of regolith) per week, at least 52 per year, would be necessary.

    In January 2006, the Russian space company RKK Energiya announced that it considers lunar helium-3 a potential economic resource to be mined by 2020, if funding can be found.

    Mining gas giants for helium-3 has also been proposed. The British Interplanetary Society’s hypothetical Project Daedalus interstellar probe design was fueled by helium-3 mines in the atmosphere of Jupiter, for example. Jupiter’s high gravity makes this a less energetically favorable operation than extracting helium-3 from the other gas giants of the solar system, however.

    Different fusion reactions require different levels of energy, and some produce radioactive byproducts and some do not. The H3>H3 reaction requires fairly high energies but produces no radioactive byproducts, if I understand it correctly.

    Lockheed Martin: Compact Fusion Research & Development –

  10. If we don’t lose the experience, working on the Space Station (and the skylab and Mir before them) is the key to future space applications. The science at these stations was always PR. The only reason for them aside from politics is to gain experience with living and working (i.e. repairs) in orbit. Not easy to get this experience on earth. The risk is we can easily lose this experience with on-going use is not occurring.

  11. Yes, regolith. That’s the debris layer of the crust. That famous picture of the astronaut’s footprint.

    The concentrations of He3 are based on Apollo samples of the regolith around the lunar landings. The finer the regolith particles, the greater the concentration of He3. The problem is the really fine regolith is rare (based on our samples and estimates) because of solar winds blowing it around, so it’s assumed that any harvesting will have to be done in course regolith with low concentrations of He3.

    However, the far side has a huge basin that may be shielded from solar winds. The regolith may be very fine based on surveys by our orbiting probes. It may have higher concentrations than the near side Apollo sites.
    It could have more He-3 than anyone has ever imagined.
    It could just be sitting there waiting for us to scoop it up and make free energy for the rest of eternity.

    We’ll never know unless we get there before the Chinese. Time is running out. Who’s with me?

  12. I was greatly depressed by the termination in the early 70s of the NERVA project. It had a ready to test fly nuclear (fission) rocket engine.

    So far, I haven’t heard of a alternate to nuclear rocket propulsion for getting man to Mars and back without the crew getting fried from long (2+years) exposure to cosmic rays. A nuclear rocket could cut the round trip time down to 6 months.

    I went over the technology development state at time of termination a couple years ago. Today, with the intervening 45+ years of general technical advances, restarting the program could make an operational engine within a few short years.

    One limitation remains that we fire the rocket off outside the atmosphere so the reusable chemical rocket would be still be necessary to get it into near-Earth orbit.

  13. Whitehall, thanks. I wasn’t even aware of that engine. And as time goes by and I read more about it, I realize how much damage the Nixon administration did to the manned spaceflight program.

  14. I think a lot of the damage was the manned spaceflight program itself. There was an early stage when automation was probably less effective than human pilots but it passed pretty quickly. A medical school classmate was the target of recruitment for the astronaut program. He was a former Air Force fighter pilot and now physician.

    His opinion was unprintable.

    Think about what has been accomplished by the unmanned probes like The Voyager Program.

    How about some of the Mars probes ?

    The Shuttle was needed for a few things like Hubble, which had the original mirror botched. The Shuttle was needed to replace the mirror, and that may have been one of the most useful missions the Shuttle did.

    I just think the manned program was mostly PR and spent an awful lot of money that could have been spent on much better technology.

  15. I disagree. If a probe takes 10 years to reach its destination, we don’t care as long as it functions when it gets there. And it’s better than nothing. But I would not ask a group of people to share a small living space for 10-20 years just to get a little science done on the edge of the solar system. Manned programs force us to improve our technologies and understanding of the space environment. It forces us to improve our ability to operate in it. We will not humans to edge of the solar system until it can be done in months, or weeks, or better yet, days. It will require vastly improved power generating and storage systems, vastly improved propulsion systems, better communications systems, and better life support and life sustaining technology. What that enabling technology will allow to do, eventually, is harvest resources and expand our living and operating space. It’s a big universe out there.

    I see the manned space program as a necessary step in moving humanity into the cosmos. This is our cradle, and we are taking baby steps away from it. We need to learn to walk and then run and do everything necessary to live while traversing it. We are at the point of the Minoans building small fishing craft, but never venturing too far from shore. We have not even reached the point of the Portuguese sailors who ventured into the unknown along the edge Africa. As much as the Renaissance, the Age of Exploration made the Europeans and Western Civilization the dominant force on the planet for the last 400 years. You need only look at the Arab world or medieval Europe to see what the alternative may have been.

    Someone is going to develop these technologies, these abilities. And that ability will provide a higher standard of living and opportunities to its people, and eventually to everyone. We benefitted from the technologies developed in the 20th century here in America and Europe. It has raised our civilization tremendously. We’re currently squandering our gift as the left chases the unicorns and fairies of marxist utopia. We need to get back on track. Social problems, low levels of civilizational warfare, income inequality, these will always be with us. We need to push onward anyway.

  16. Right, Mike. Much of the manned program, including the International Space Station, pivots on the $grease$ of PR. Or, better said, PR gaining $grease$. Even true in top-down countries with command economies, where the “leaders” can decide where to allocate resources.

    Lots of ironies here. Command economy folks continue in their faith commitment denial of the productivity and cost benefits of free enterprise, hence their space effort ends up costing lots more. Meanwhile free countries have to struggle thru persuading taxpayers that a space effort not only will satisfy curiousity, it will also have enormous as yet unknown economic benefits. (Those stingy taxpayers would rather spend their money on stuff already developed thru R&D financed by the space exploration effort.)

    Musing along that line threads thru the last paragraph of my comment opening this comments thread: the parallel between 15th-17th century exploration of the western hemisphere by European nations and 20th-say, 22nd C space exploration.

    Those nations had technology needing only a little tweaking. While expensive, when measured in terms of portion of national economy, their exploration did not cost much. And their were economic rewards. (One can also learn from reflecting on how different nations figured to get back their investment compared and contrasted with what actually resulted. Oversimpliifed: Spain figured to get high value natural resources, eg gold, and focused on immediate exploitation. Portugal turned to making slaves of the locals. France attempted to make a dependent economy. England turned loose entrepreneurs who could create their own self-supporting economy. Imho the paradigm that focused on results from long term investment did best by any measurement other than something very sort term.)

    Today’s space exploration effort faces technological hurdles much larger than sailing to a habitable land. (An effort, btw, that did cost a lot of lives. Even percentagewise.) Hindsight might determine these hurdles not as large as they appear. But I doubt that they will not remain huge even in hindsight. And it’s not exactly clear what long term investment would look like, not to mention getting a return from it.

    Regarding manned vs machine exploration: one can debate how much, eg, the Mars rovers did in years vs what boots on the ground would have done in days vs the cost of each methodology. I suggest machines are a stopgap, a means of doing something quick, doing something now at relatively lesser expense. They will certainly prove valuable for data gathering. But not for what will eventually provide the only sufficient reason for exploration in this solar system not to mention further: commercial development via people in place. Machines thus have use for promoting $grease$ for the long term effort.

  17. I don’t feel strongly about this but I did just finish reading Iron Men and Tin Fish, a history of the US Navy torpedo disaster in World War II. The fact that the Torpedo Station at Newport Rhode Island was the sole source of US torpedoes early in the war, caused a huge problem and cost many lives as submarine skippers took their boats into close quarters with the Japanese Navy carrying torpedoes that didn’t work.

    I’ve read it before and just went back to go through the story again. It’s very well done and explains how government doesn’t get things done unless there is competition. Even the German Navy knew this ! Finally, after two years !, the Navy figured out that the torpedoes did not explode and left a trail of bubbles for the enemy to follow back to the submerged sub. Westinghouse got involved and quickly developed the electric torpedo which was ready in a year.

    Anyway, the Manned Space Program and all of NASA, if truth be told, is an example of government spending and failure to make progress. I’m glad to see that private competition is going to drive the future in space.

    The Human Genome Project is another example of government failure and the success of private initiative in solving the same problem.

    Here is my review of Craig Venter’s book which describes how he did it when the government funded project was moving slowly along. He was hated by the bureaucrats because he was going to fund his work with patents of some genes. You will see the same vitriol directed at mining programs proposed for the Moon.

  18. “the Mars rovers did in years vs what boots on the ground would have done in days”

    I just wish someone had had the imagination to equip a rover with a device to dig down about six feet into Martian soil as I expect there are probably living organisms similar to the earth Archea organisms that are probably related to the oldest form of life and may exist elsewhere.

    Here, they are found in extreme conditions such as hot geysers and cold frozen sites. They tolerate radiation and some of them are capable of cleaning up radioactive waste.

    The membranes of Archaea are constructed from molecules unlike those in other life forms; this morphology demonstrates the ancestral distance from bacteria and eukaryotes. For every organism, cell membranes are made of phospholipid molecules. These phospholipids exhibit a polar part that dissolves in water (a phosphate head), and a hydrophobic non-polar part (a lipid tail) that is water insoluble. These dissimilar ends are connected by a glycerol group. In water, phospholipids aggregate, with heads facing the water and tails facing the opposite direction. The principal structure in cell membranes is a dual layer of phospholipids, often termed a lipid bilayer.

    These phospholipids are distinct for a number of reasons:

    In the case of bacteria and eukaryotes, membranes consist chiefly of glycol-ester lipids, but archaea have membranes made of glycerol-ether lipids. Ether bonds are chemically more stable than ester bonds, assisting archaea in survival at extreme temperatures and extreme pH environments.

    The first Mars expedition had a digger on the Viking Lander on which my father-in-law worked at Hughes Aircraft.

    It has been proposed that organic compounds could have been present in the soil analyzed by both Viking 1 and 2, but remained unnoticed due to the presence of perchlorate, as detected by Phoenix in 2008.[16] Researchers found that perchlorate will destroy organics when heated and will produce chloromethane and dichloromethane, the identical chlorine compounds discovered by both Viking landers when they performed the same tests on Mars.

    The question of microbial life on Mars remains unresolved. Nonetheless, on April 12, 2012, an international team of scientists reported studies, based on mathematical speculation through complexity analysis of the Labeled Release experiments of the 1976 Viking Mission, that may suggest the detection of “extant microbial life on Mars.”

    I suspect that, in the absence of atmosphere, the organisms will be found well below the surface, The Viking only dug a few inches. The Phoenix Program had some different experiments but still was quite shallow.

    On June 19, 2008 (sol 24), NASA announced that dice-sized clumps of bright material in the “Dodo-Goldilocks” trench dug by the robotic arm had vaporized over the course of four days, strongly implying that they were composed of water ice which sublimated following exposure. While dry ice also sublimates, under the conditions present it would do so at a rate much faster than observed.[49][50][51]

    On July 31, 2008 (sol 65), NASA announced that Phoenix confirmed the presence of water ice on Mars, as predicted in 2002 by the Mars Odyssey orbiter. During the initial heating cycle of a new sample, TEGA’s mass spectrometer detected water vapor when the sample temperature reached 0 °C.[52] Liquid water cannot exist on the surface of Mars with its present low atmospheric pressure, except at the lowest elevations for short periods.

    This is all stuff that human explorers will not be able to do until the next century, I suspect.

  19. From a speech JFK gave dedicating an aerospace medical center in San Antonio the day before he was killed:

    “Frank O’Connor, the Irish writer, tells in one of his books how, as a boy, he and his friends would make their way across the countryside, and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high and too doubtful to try and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall–and then they had no choice but to follow them.

    This Nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it. Whatever the difficulties, they will be overcome. Whatever the hazards, they must be guarded against. With the vital help of this Aerospace Medical Center, with the help of all those who labor in the space endeavor, with the help and support of all Americans, we will climb this wall with safety and with speed-and we shall then explore the wonders on the other side.”

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