Jeff Bezos opened the week right for Blue Origin when he announced the New Glenn, a 270-foot reusable rocket to take on the likes of SpaceX’s Falcon 9.
It’s always a good thing to have many options but does that apply to space travel? Are Bezos and Elon Musk on the right track? Is there really a market for reusable rockets?
Reusable rockets are actually nothing new. For decades, the United States and its major contractors in the aerospace field have been tackling the issue of reusable spacecraft. They have had successes but there were also numerous failures, which cost the government billions of dollars.
Then came Blue Origin and SpaceX.
The two spaceflight companies have spent most of 2016 showing that reusing spacecraft is possible. Blue Origin, for instance, has flown a suborbital rocket four times with low turnaround costs while SpaceX has been able to recover five of its orbital rockets and is planning on having one of those rockets fly again later in the year.
Aerospace experts gathered in Salt Lake City in July for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ forum on propulsion and part of the agenda was to talk about reusable rockets.
All of the participating experts have ties to expendable rocket systems so comments about reusable rockets not being feasible was to be expected. However, there was actually some support for reusable systems.
For instance, Orbital ATK’s Ben Goldberg said that reusable rockets have potential. However, he made it clear it was only where suborbital launches are concerned. He also didn’t believe that reusable systems will lead to reduced launch costs by a factor of 100, like what Musk said. Instead, he pegged cost savings at 30 percent.
Blue Origin and SpaceX follow the idea that significantly reducing costs will attract all sorts of profitable activities. Conversely, traditional aerospace practitioners wait for government contracts before acting.
Given the activity around spaceflight these days, it’s clear that there is definitely a market for reusable rockets, but it might be better to split that market into two: individuals who have $250,000 lying around and governments exploring space in the name of science.
Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Doug Bradley had the most positive outlook for reusable rockets in the forum, noting it appears the industry is at a crossroads.
“There are good reasons for it now, but looking ahead decades, it’s going to be just commonplace that rockets and spacecraft are going to be reusable. So I say let’s get to it,” he said.
Aside from growing space tourism, there is also support in the aerospace industry for deep-space flight that will not only take humans to Mars but will also help in establishing a colony in the red planet. In particular, Musk is gearing up to have SpaceX fly an unmanned spacecraft to Mars by 2018 and launch the first human mission to the planet in 2025.
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