Rocket Lab Sets Their Sights On Rapid Reusability By Snagging Rockets In Mid-Air With A Helicopter

Not so very long ago, orbital rockets simply didn’t get reused. After their propellants were expended on the journey to orbit, they petered out and fell back down into the ocean where they were obliterated on impact. Rockets were disposable because, as far as anyone could tell, building another one was cheaper and easier than trying to reuse them. The Space Shuttle had proved that reuse of a spacecraft and its booster was possible, but the promised benefits of reduced cost and higher launch cadence never materialized. If anything, the Space Shuttle was often considered proof that reusability made more sense on paper than it did in the real-world.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck with Electron rocket

But that was before SpaceX started routinely landing and reflying the first stage of their Falcon 9 booster. Nobody outside the company really knows how much money is being saved by reuse, but there’s no denying the turn-around time from landing to reflight is getting progressively shorter. Moreover, by performing up to three flights on the same booster, SpaceX is demonstrating a launch cadence that is simply unmatched in the industry.

So it should come as no surprise to find that other launch providers are feeling the pressure to develop their own reusability programs. The latest to announce their intent to recover and eventually refly their vehicle is Rocket Lab, despite CEO Peter Beck’s admission that he was originally against the idea. He’s certainly changed his tune. With data collected over the last several flights the company now believes they have a reusability plan that’s compatible with the unique limitations of their diminutive Electron launch vehicle.

According to Beck, the goal isn’t necessarily to save money. During his presentation at the Small Satellite Conference in Utah, he explained that what they’re really going after is an increase in flight frequency. Right now they can build and fly an Electron every month, and while they eventually hope to produce a rocket a week, even a single reuse per core would have a huge impact on their annual launch capability:

If we can get these systems up on orbit quickly and reliably and frequently, we can innovate a lot more and create a lot more opportunities. So launch frequency is really the main driver for why Electron is going reusable. In time, hopefully we can obviously reduce prices as well. But the fundamental reason we’re doing this is launch frequency. Even if I can get the stage back once, I’ve effectively doubled my production ratio.

But, there’s a catch. Electron is too small to support the addition of landing legs and doesn’t have the excess propellants to use its engines during descent. Put simply, the tiny rocket is incapable of landing itself. So Rocket Lab believes the only way to recover the Electron is by snatching it out of the air before it gets to the ground.

Continue reading “Rocket Lab Sets Their Sights On Rapid Reusability By Snagging Rockets In Mid-Air With A Helicopter”

SpaceX’s Next Giant Leap: Second Stage Recovery

With the successful launch of the Bangabandhu-1 satellite on May 11th, the final version of the Falcon 9 rocket has finally become operational. Referred to as the “Block 5”, this version of the rocket is geared specifically towards reuse. The lessons learned from the recovery and reflight of earlier builds of the F9 have culminated into rocket that SpaceX hopes can go from recovery to its next flight in as few as 24 hours. If any rocket will make good on the dream of spaceflight becoming as routine as air travel, it’s going to be the Falcon 9 Block 5.

While there might still be minor tweaks and improvements made to Block 5 over the coming years, it’s safe to say that first stage recovery of the Falcon 9 has been all but perfected. What was once the fodder of campy science fiction, rockets propulsively lowering themselves down from the sky and coming to rest on spindly landing legs that popped out of the sides, is now a reality. More importantly, not only is SpaceX able to bring the towering first stage back from space reliably, they’re able to refuel it, inspect it, and send it back up without having to build a new one for each mission.

But as incredible a technical accomplishment as this is, SpaceX still isn’t recovering the entire Falcon 9 rocket. At best, they have accomplished the same type of partial reusability that the Space Shuttle demonstrated on its first flight all the way back in 1981. Granted they are doing it much faster and cheaper than it was done on the Shuttle, but it still goes against the classic airplane analogy: if you had to replace a huge chunk of the airliner every time it landed, commercial air travel would be completely impractical.

SpaceX has already started experimenting with recovering and reusing the payload fairings of the Falcon 9, and while they haven’t pulled it off yet, they’ll probably get there. That leaves only one piece of the Falcon 9 unaccounted for: the second stage. Bringing the second stage back to Earth in one piece might well be the most challenging aspect of developing the Falcon 9. But if SpaceX can do it, then they’ll have truly developed humanity’s first fully reusable rocket, capable of delivering payloads to space for little more than the cost of fuel.

Continue reading “SpaceX’s Next Giant Leap: Second Stage Recovery”