SpaceX, Blue Origin and the dream of reusable rockets
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — On Dec. 21, 2015, SpaceX made history by having the first stage of one of their Falcon 9 rockets carry out a controlled landing at the Cape’s recently-renamed “Landing Zone 1”. To say the event was historic would be an understatement. However, the landing was, in actuality, just the latest step on a path that got its start in the earliest days of the space age.
In the 1950 science fiction film Destination Moon, a quartet of space explorers land their entire rocket on the lunar surface before beginning their adventure across the dusty plains of our nearest celestial neighbor. While a work of fiction, NASA itself was considering such a feat during its race to the Moon with the Soviet Union.
During the pivotal period around May of 1961, then-administrator of the space agency, James Webb, believed that the most “natural” way to land on the Moon would be what was called “direct descent”. In essence, a large portion of the rocket would conduct a landing on the surface of the Moon. At the time, a proposed vehicle, called Nova, would have carried out the mission.
The Voice in the Wilderness
One of the lesser-known aspects of what Nova might have done (and different in the method employed by the Falcon 9) was that options to land the vehicle horizontally were also considered. Even at that time, the concept seemed to be a rather risky and impractical proposition.
“Dr. Pickering [said] you don’t have to go into orbit; … you just aim at the Moon and, when you get close enough, turn on the landing rockets and come straight in. … I thought that would be a pretty unhappy day if, when you lit up the rockets, they didn’t light,” said Max Faget, one of NASA’s leading rocket and spacecraft designers at the time.
However, an alternative was suggested by one of Apollo’s engineers – John C. Houbolt. Rather than launch a massive rocket to the Moon, why not simply send two smaller components – the Apollo Command module and the Lunar Module – into lunar orbit, and then have the LM carry out the landing and the return to the Command Module for the return flight to Earth.
This plan eventually won out and the rest was history. But the possibilities of having a rocket be able to carry out controlled landings never went away.
NewSpace – Old Dreams
After Apollo, with its budget and, therefore, its abilities being cut back, NASA fell back to Earth – literally. The agency’s manned programs (all NASA’s astronauts at that time were male) would be focused on operations in low-Earth orbit. It is a state that the agency has been in since December of 1972.
That did not sit well with some who grew to miss Apollo’s days of exploration and innovation. NASA seemed incapable of pushing human space exploration back to the Moon, on to Mars, and to points beyond. Groups found ways to work with government entities, foreshadowing the public-private agreements that would become so popular a couple decades later.
Perhaps one of the most innovative efforts was that of the DC-X Delta Clipper. This uncrewed prototype was developed by McDonnell Douglas to produce a reusable, single-stage-to-orbit system. What is often forgotten by those who propose an end to organizations like NASA, in favor of a purely commercial space effort, is that to fund most of these efforts you need a customer seeking a service or product. The DC-X project was no different.
Developed, in part, under the U.S. Department of Defense’s Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO – or “Star Wars” Initiative), the aeroshell for the first test article was constructed by Scaled Composites in 1991, with the vehicle’s engines and flight control systems being mostly off-the-shelf components.
Under SDIO, the craft flew eight times between 1993–1995 before the project drew to a close – and then it was picked up by NASA. Under the space agency’s care, several modifications were made to the test article, including the installation of a Russian-produced oxygen tank, which was described by some involved on the project as being of “low quality”.
A fire erupted during the May 16, 1996, flight of the redubbed “DC-XA“; the damage was repaired and the craft went on to fly three more times. On its final flight, a landing strut failed at touchdown and the vehicle caught fire.
NASA’s Brand Commission, held to investigate the accident, placed some of the blame on conditions where burnt-out flight crews were placed under excessive pressure from fluctuating funding conditions. In fact, the threat of outright cancellation loomed over the project throughout NASA’s tenure. While numerous anecdotal evidence exists, one thing appears clear: the DC-X program fared much better under the SDIO than it did at NASA.
Former Apollo astronaut Pete Conrad worked on portions of the DC-X program and placed the cost of a new vehicle at around $50 million (NASA opted to cancel the DC-XA program due to “budget constraints”). The space agency opted instead to place its attention on the X-33 / Venturestar project (which cost approximately $1.279 billion and was cancelled in 2001).
The DC-X was one project that not only captured the public’s imagination but also demonstrated the capability of a vehicle to ascend into the sky, maneuver, and then land. It, perhaps, also helped demonstrate that the impressive price tags that went along with space efforts need not be so.
The DC-X program also demonstrated that turning around the vehicle between one flight and the next could occur in a very short time frame (some flights occurred within the same month). According to a report appearing on The Verge, SpaceX CEO and Founder Elon Musk has recently stated that the first stage which carried out the Dec. 21 flight was ready to be sent aloft again. Given that less than six months had elapsed between the failed CRS-7 mission and the historic flight of Orbcomm OG2, SpaceX appears to have demonstrated how to produce vehicles capable of their own rapid turnaround.
In terms of the Orbcomm OG2 mission, it simply could not have been more of a success. The mission marked the successful return-to-flight of the Falcon 9 rocket after the loss of the prior booster during the June 28, 2015, CRS-7 mission. Moreover, all 11 of the satellites were deployed – just as advertised. The mission culminated in the first stage – the first ever to do so after delivering its payload to orbit – landing precisely on target back at Cape Canaveral.
SpaceX is not alone in efforts to make launch vehicles reusable, however. On Nov. 23, 2015, Kent, Washington-based Blue Origin successfully had its New Shepard launch vehicle travel to an altitude of 329,839 feet (100 kilometers or 62.5 miles) and then carry out a successful landing back of its own. While much lower than the Falcon 9’s 656,168 feet (200 kilometers or 124 miles) less than a month later, the successful flight of New Shepard highlighted the competitive nature corporations are engaging in to open space to a wider degree of clients than what has taken place in the past.
@SpaceX on landing Falcon’s suborbital booster stage. Welcome to the club!” – Blue Origin’s CEO Jeff Bezos posted on Twitter shortly after the “Full Thrust” Falcon 9 had touched down at Cape Canaveral.
The fact that not one but two private space firms conducted successful flights of reusable launch vehicles in the month of December, suggests that the age of single-use launch vehicles may be drawing to a close. While there will likely be some missions and destinations not suited for these reusable rockets, many launches could benefit from these rockets.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.