In mid-May 2023 a SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) rocket returned to earth eight minutes after launch and landed its booster rockets for reuse. This was the 191st time SpaceX booster rockets had done this. SpaceX engineers believe that these booster rockets can be reused up to a hundred times if refurbished after each use and landing. Not all booster rockets land successfully So far, about 75 percent of boosters do land in shape for refurbishment and reuse. So far one rocket has been refurbished and reused 12 times.
The cost of refurbishment has continually declined. A Falcon 9 booster initially costs $30 million to manufacture and $62 million to launch. The first refurbishment cost $13 and took nearly a year. After five years the cost of refurbishment was down to a million dollars and the refurbishment took three weeks to complete. Eventually the cost is expected to come down to $250,000 and time required less than a week.
SpaceX is also reducing the number of boosters that do not land intact. This is not magic, it’s how engineering works. It is obvious to most people when it comes to consumer electronics, that after first introduction, the price gradually declines while the capabilities of the systems increase. Flat screen displays, PCs, laptops and tech in general consistently follow this trend.
The first reusable space vehicle, the space shuttle, took about eight months and at least $450 million to refurbish between launches. The Space Shuttles were retired because it cost more and took longer to get them ready for a new mission than the space program could afford. A lot of space flight engineers believed that refurbishment could be done for less money and time. Many of those engineers went to work for SpaceX, where they got a chance to prove cheaper space flight was possible.
This eventually changed the American space flight program. For example, in 2019 the U.S. Air Force announced the end of the ULA (United Launch Alliance) monopoly on putting government payloads into space. In the future all launches of satellites and transport vehicles will be open to bid by ULA and SpaceX, and eventually also Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin. The air force expected to select two of these companies for each multi-launch contract (“block buys”) in which the firm with the best price and track record would thrive while the other three scrambled for second place. There are a variety of launch rocket configurations required for the many types of payloads to be lifted into several different types of orbits. This provides plenty of opportunities for the four companies to concentrate on some types of payload/orbit combinations and offer the most attractive prices and reliability. There may eventually be more than four such companies.
Since 2006, when it was created, ULA has launched about ten rockets a year. ULA uses two launcher designs that were originally designed for military purposes and later adapted as satellite launchers. The Atlas 5 is a 334 ton rocket that can, depending on model, put 29 tons into low orbit and 13 tons into the much higher GTO orbit. One potential problem here is that Atlas 5 is dependent on Russian RD-180 rocket motors. These became more difficult to get after 2014. The Delta 4 can weigh up to 733 tons and put 22 tons into low orbit and 13 tons into GTO orbit. The Delta 4 uses American-made engines.
Previously, given the lack of competitors for this business, the ULA made sense. But ULA received cash advances and other government financing assistance that made it even more difficult for a new firm to provide competition. Despite that advantage, the ULA monopoly was eventually threatened by SpaceX, a private company that had its first successful commercial launch in 2013. SpaceX also demonstrated the successful operation of a booster rocket that can return and land under its own power. This cuts the cost of putting anything into orbit and is a major breakthrough in launcher technology. No one else was developing these new technologies
The SpaceX tech was impressive and in 2012 SpaceX obtained its first contract to launch U.S. military cargo into space. SpaceX had earlier obtained a NASA contract which included 12 deliveries to the ISS (International Space Station) at $134 million each. What makes all this so noteworthy is that SpaceX developed its own launch rockets without any government help. SpaceX also developed the Dragon space vehicle for delivering personnel and supplies to the International Space Station.
SpaceX has since proved that its rockets work and is proving that the SpaceX rockets can do the job cheaper. The ULA gets a billion dollar a year subsidy from the government that SpaceX does not require. SpaceX still has to get all the paperwork and approvals done so that they can handle classified missions. SpaceX did not see this as a problem; it’s only a matter of time before they satisfy all the bureaucrats and regulations. The fact that ULA was getting government financing and subsidies for its launch operations brought them under Congressional pressure because SpaceX was offering superior launch services for a lower price by using new tech, and there was no reason to subsidize ULA and their older and more expensive approach.
While waiting for the air force to decide, SpaceX put its new technology to use. In September 2014 SpaceX put its second AsiaSat communications satellite into high (geosynchronous transfer) stationary orbit over East Asia. The five ton AsiaSat 6 is designed to last a minimum of 15 years. The AsiaSat birds broadcast video and more of them are going up until they can deliver video to all of East Asia.
In 2016 the U.S. Air Force agreed to pay SpaceX $83 million to launch a new GPS satellite. That price was 40 percent lower than what ULA charged and it was understood that if SpaceX succeeded, as they did, they would get more such work as the air force is putting over a dozen more new GPS satellites into orbit. In response ULA scrambled to cut costs, innovate and become competitive, but SpaceX quickly went from success to success and it seemed inevitable that the ULA near-monopoly was going away and now it has. Lockheed and Boeing have dominated U.S. space launches for over half a century. From the beginning space vehicles were designed by government organizations and construction was subcontracted to aviation firms, turning these companies into “aerospace” companies. It was believed that no private company could break into this business without an invitation and assistance from the government. SpaceX was founded in 2002 to prove that private enterprise could do a better job and, as has happened so many times in the past, they were right and their novel approach worked.
So far SpaceX has developed three launchers. The Falcon 1 was a developmental model, used mainly for testing and was first launched in 2006. Two of its five launches were a success and the model is now retired. Falcon 9 is a 333 ton launcher that can lift ten tons into orbit and is competitive with the older (government developed) Delta 4 and the Atlas 5 launchers. Falcon 9 first launched in 2010 and entered service in 2012. The Falcon Heavy is a 1,462 ton rocket that can lift 53 tons into low orbit and 21 tons into GTO orbit. Falcon Heavy is a development of the Falcon 9 and launched for the first time in 2016. Since then, there have been many more launches. Many of the Falcon Heavy booster rockets return and land intact under their own power and are refurbished for reuse. This worked better than anyone outside SpaceX expected and the refurbishment process kept getting faster and cheaper.
From the beginning SpaceX offered lower prices, even without the self-landing booster, and more flexibility than most government, usually military, developed launchers. As a privately owned company, SpaceX has less bureaucracy and is quicker to adapt new technology for launch services. Many existing and potential SpaceX customers see this as the future of space transportation.
While the Delta 4 and Atlas V have a proven record of reliability, SpaceX offered competition and that usually means the development of better and cheaper technology. Lockheed Martin and Boeing have lots of friends in Congress but that was not enough to maintain government launch services as an expensive ULA monopoly. That process was aided by videos of the SpaceX booster rockets returning and landing. This appealed to an old science fiction trope, with rockets taking off and landing using their rockets. That was long known to be possible but none of the firms, most of them government controlled, that built rockets bothered to pursue the idea and make it work. SpaceX did and that was a convincing reason to allow SpaceX to compete for launch business. The commercial business was already going to SpaceX when the air force agreed that SpaceX was a superior and less expensive technology.
With the acceptance of SpaceX and elimination of the ULA monopoly, there are several other new firms seeking to emulate SpaceX and this is likely to put more new technologies into use. So far, other firms and other countries have had little success emulating SpaceX. The Russian space program went bankrupt and is disappearing while the Chinese are still trying to come up with a way to emulate SpaceX. China has been reigning in its entrepreneurs because, as a communist police state, they see successful entrepreneurs as a threat to their power. This is deemed more important than getting the job done, which often results in military defeat when confronted by enemies with more resilient political systems and outcome-oriented attitudes.