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SpaceX's Reusable Rocket: The 'Holy Grail' of Space Flight?

January 6, 2016 (Photo Credit: SpaceX)

WASHINGTON — SpaceX's historic landing of a reusable rocket booster sets the stage for a new era in US access to space and likely marks the beginning of the end of the disposable launcher.

This extraordinary achievement lays the groundwork for a revolution in the launch services market, analysts contend. SpaceX’s demonstration of a reusable rocket in late December potentially drives down the cost of space launch to unprecedented levels, leaving its competitors scrambling to catch up.

“If this is the beginning of a new era in terms of using reusable rockets more as a rule rather than the exception, then you are potentially revolutionizing the launch services market,” said Marco Caceres, Teal Group director of space studies. 

On Dec. 21, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral into space. The rocket boosted 11 Orbcomm communications satellites into orbit before turning around and gracefully returning to the ground. The event was widely watched, after two failed attempts earlier this year to land the booster on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean.

Bill Ostrove, an analyst for Forecast International, called the event the “holy grail of space flight” due to the engineering and technical challenges of building and operating a reusable rocket. The system must be very durable in order to withstand the atmospheric and acceleration pressures of space launch, he explained.

If SpaceX proves its Falcon 9 booster can be used again and again to launch vehicles and satellites into space, the price of the rocket could potentially drop by half, Caceres estimated. The $60 million to $70 million per Falcon 9 launch is already much cheaper than its main competition. United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, offers its Atlas V rocket for about $160 million to $170 million per launch.

If SpaceX can repeat the feat, it will force competitors to race to lower their rockets's costs, Caceres said.

“They are all trying to play catch-up now because their vehicles are suddenly too expensive to compete with SpaceX over the near- or midterm,” he said “There is no way that a company that has expendable launch vehicles can compete effectively over the long term.”

The Falcon 9 touchdown came less than a month after Blue Origin, a space company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, recovered a smaller rocket after launching on a suborbital test flight. Blue Origin’s rocket became the first vehicle to fly into space and return to Earth, but it did not achieve the altitude and velocity the Falcon 9 did.

“What SpaceX did was much more impressive,” Caceres said. “It is kind of a milestone for the industry because it really marks potentially the beginning of a new era for the space launch industry, and the question will be whether the current competitors in the industry will be able to keep up.”

The successful landing comes at a crucial moment for US access to space. In June, a SpaceX rocket exploded on its way to the International Space Station, just weeks after the Air Force certified the company for military space launch after a long battle. Then in December, Congress reversed a ban on using Russian engines to launch military satellites into space — a huge win for ULA, which uses the RD-180 to power its Atlas V rocket. The reversal allows ULA to compete head-to-head against SpaceX for the Air Force’s GPS III Launch Service contest, including contracts for at least four satellite launches next year. In fact, just days after the reversal, ULA ordered 20 additional RD-180s, on top of 29 engines ordered before Russia's invasion of Crimea. 

The move set off a political showdown in Congress, pitting Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., against Senate appropriators Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill. McCain, who pushed for continued restrictions on the use of the RD-180 to punish Russia for its annexation of Crimea in 2014, accused Shelby and Durbin of giving in to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his “gang of thugs.”

But geopolitical tension aside, Caceres contends the reversal of the ban is good for the launch services market because it prevents the possible extinction of ULA and the potential for SpaceX to monopolize the industry. ULA had a monopoly on military space launches from its creation in 2006 until SpaceX’s certification last year.

“I don’t think it’s to anybody’s advantage to have a monopoly in terms of having just one launch provider,” Caceres said. “Congress can put aside its differences with the Russians for the time being until we have an indigenous rocket engine.”

But it will be years before ULA develops a domestic alternative to the RD-180. Congress has allocated funds for the Air Force to develop a US-made rocket engine, but it is unclear how this money will be spent.

Anticipating a fight over the RD-180, ULA took matters into its own hands after Russia invaded its neighbor in 2014. The company quickly announced it would begin developing a new family of rockets called the Vulcan. ULA is teaming with Blue Origin on Bezos’ BE-4 engine to power the next-generation launch system.

But although ULA is seen to favor Blue Origin, the deal is not yet in the bag. Rocket engine manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne is also developing a homegrown solution, the AR-1. Presumably, the Air Force will compete the AR-1 against the BE-4 to see which is the best fit for the mission, but ULA’s preference for Bezos’ engine may affect the service’s decision, Ostrove said.

“The government is providing funds, but they are not exactly sure how to disperse them,” Ostrove said. “The Air Force will release a competition, but again it’s not exactly clear because ULA sort of already has a plan in place ... There is probably not much [Aerojet] can do if ULA does what they want to do and the Air Force agrees.”

As for the Falcon 9 that returned to Earth, Musk tweeted that the rocket is unharmed and ready for its next mission.

"Falcon 9 back in the hangar at Cape Canaveral," Musk wrote on Instagram on Dec. 31, along with a picture of the booster. "No damage found, ready to fire again."

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @laraseligman

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