When Rocket Lab launched their first Electron booster in 2017, it was unlike anything that had ever flown before. The small commercially developed rocket was the first to use fully 3D printed main engines, and instead of pumping its propellants with traditional turbines, the vehicle used electric motors that jettisoned their depleted battery packs overboard during ascent to reduce weight. It even looked different than its peers, as rather than a metal fuselage, the Electron was built from a lightweight carbon composite which gave it a distinctive black color scheme.
Packing so many revolutionary technical advancements into a single vehicle was a risk, but Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck believed a technical shakeup was the only way to get ahead in an increasingly competitive market. While that first launch in 2017 didn’t make it to orbit, the next year, Rocket Lab could boast three successful flights. By the end of 2020, a total of fifteen Electron rockets had completed their missions, carrying payloads from both commercial customers and government agencies such as NASA, the United States Air Force, and DARPA.
Rocket Lab’s gambit paid off, and the company has greatly outpaced competitors such as Virgin Orbit, Astra, and Relativity. In fact Electron is now the second most active orbital booster in the United States, behind SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Considering their explosive growth, it’s only natural they’d want to maintain that momentum going forward. But even still, the recent announcement that the company will be developing a far larger rocket they call Neutron to fly by 2024 took many in the industry by surprise; especially since Peter Beck himself had previously said they would never build it.
Put simply, the goal of any reusable booster is to reduce the cost of getting a payload into space. The comparison is often made to commercial aviation: if you had to throw away the airliner after every flight, nobody could afford the tickets. The fact that the plane can be refueled and flown again and again allows operators to amortize its high upfront cost.
In theory, the same should hold true for orbital rockets. With enough flight experience, you can figure out which parts of the vehicle will need replacement or repair, and how often. Assuming the fuel is cheap enough and the cost of refurbishment doesn’t exceed that of building a new one, eventually the booster will pay for itself. You just need a steady stream of paying customers, which is hardly a challenge given how much we rely on our space infrastructure.
But there’s a catch. For the airliner analogy to really work, whatever inspections and repairs the rocket requires between missions must be done as quickly as possible. The cost savings from reuse aren’t nearly as attractive if you can only fly a few times a year. The key to truly making space accessible isn’t just building a reusable rocket, but attaining rapid reusability.
Which is precisely where SpaceX currently finds themselves. Over the years they’ve mastered landing the Falcon 9’s first stage, and they’ve even proven that the recovered boosters can be safely reused for additional flights. But the refurbishment process is still fairly lengthy. While their latest launch officially broke the record for fastest reflight of a space vehicle that had previously been set by Space Shuttle Atlantis, there’s still a lot of work to be done if SpaceX is ever going to fly their rockets like airplanes.
Even for those of us who follow space news closely, there’s a lot to keep track of these days. Private companies are competing to develop new human-rated spacecraft and assembling satellite mega-constellations, while NASA is working towards a return the Moon and the first flight of the SLS. Between new announcements, updates to existing missions, and literal rocket launches, things are happening on a nearly daily basis. It’s fair to say we haven’t seen this level of activity since the Space Race of the 1960s.
With so much going on, it’s no surprise that not many people have heard of the XS-1 Phantom Express. A project by the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the XS-1 was designed to be a reusable launch system that could put small payloads into orbit on short notice. Once its mission was complete, the vehicle was to return to the launch site and be ready for re-flight in as a little as 24 hours.
Alternately referred to as the “DARPA Experimental Spaceplane”, the vehicle was envisioned as being roughly the size of a business jet and capable of carrying a payload of up to 2,300 kilograms (5,000 pounds). It would take off vertically under rocket power and then glide back to Earth at the end of the mission to make a conventional runway landing. At $5 million per flight, its operating costs would be comparable with even the most aggressively priced commercial launch providers; but with the added bonus of not having to involve a third party in military and reconnaissance missions which would almost certainly be classified in nature.
Or at least, that was the idea. Flight tests were originally scheduled to begin this year, but earlier this year prime contractor Boeing abruptly dropped out of the program. Despite six years in development and over $140 million in funding awarded by DARPA, it’s now all but certain that the XS-1 Phantom Express will never get off the ground. Which is a shame, as even in a market full of innovative launch vehicles, this unique spacecraft offered some compelling advantages.
With the notable exception of the Space Shuttle, rockets and spacecraft have always been considered disposable. It’s a slow and expensive way to travel, akin to building a new airliner for every flight, but it was the easiest option. These vehicles have always represented the pinnacle of engineering and material science of their time, and just surviving the trip to space once was an incredible accomplishment. To have another go around would have been asking too much of the technology. Even looking back on the Space Shuttle program, there’s plenty of debate about whether or not the reusable design really paid off in the end.
So SpaceX’s ability to land, refurbish, and refly the first stage of their Falcon 9 booster is no small accomplishment. After demonstrating the idea was possible in 2017, the company made numerous changes to the latest iteration of the rocket with reusability in mind. Known as Block 5, this version of the Falcon 9 is designed to be more survivable and require minimal servicing between flights. The company says its cheaper and faster to reuse the Block 5 than it would be to build a new one for each flight, allowing the company to approach spaceflight more like commercial aviation.
With a fleet of Block 5 boosters now in rotation, SpaceX has given them serial numbers not unlike an airplane’s tail number. It might not be the kind of thing the general public would normally be aware of, but these serial numbers have allowed a dedicated community of space aficionados to keep track of the missions each booster has flown.
Unfortunately the story of one of these rockets, officially referred to as “Cores” in SpaceX parlance, was recently cut short. Core B1056, returning from the Starlink 4 mission on February 17th, failed to land on the autonomous spaceport drone ship (ASDS) Of Course I Still LoveYou and splashed down in the ocean. It’s still unclear what condition the booster was in after its soft landing in the water, but when the recovery ships returned to port empty handed, there was no question as to the fate of B1056.
From a purely business standpoint, the failure of any of SpaceX’s boosters means lost time and revenue. But in some ways B1056 had established itself as the vanguard of the fleet, managing to either set or break a number of records in its relatively short life. The destruction of the most thoroughly flight proven Block 5 booster is a stark reminder that there’s very little about spaceflight that could be called routine.
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.
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.
While not very technical, [3eff_Jeff] posted an interesting modification to an empty air canister that makes it refillable. He was tired of drilling holes in the ozone, so he carefully drilled a hole into the top of the can instead. In the name of caution, he made sure the can was completely empty first by tying the trigger down with a rubber band. After waiting a while he carefully drilled the hole using an oil lubricant, and then epoxied in a Schrader valve from a leftover bike tire tube.
Due to compression of the air as it is pumped into the can, it becomes quite warm. He found that if the can is allowed to cool to room temperature, the air would become very cold once leaving the canister, which would cause condensation problems. So he uses it right after filling, and then empties it out when not in use.
We do not recommend anyone trying this, but it is a unique way to make a commonly used disposable resource in the computer field reusable. If we can use something more than once, we’re definitely for it. That’s why we support recycling components that would otherwise make their way to the landfill.