Space: Reusability and Speed-of-Launch


September 26, 2023: SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) has developed a series of Falcon SLV (Satellite Launch Vehicles) rockets that are cheaper, more reliable and available in so many configurations that no other SLV manufacturer can compete. While some major SLV users, like China, continue to use older SLV technology but have developed, but not successfully used, a reusable rocket similar to Falcon. As of early September, Falcon SLVs have carried out 63 successful launches. The means a launch, on average, every four days. In all of 2022 there were only 61 launches.

The first stage of the Falcon 9 returns to earth and lands intact. This first stage is reusable and SpaceX has its reusability technology to the point where booster rockets can be recovered, refurbished and reused up to 20 times. Already, many boosters are being reused at least ten times. Each refurbishment costs about $500,000 and performs as well as a new booster. This reduces the cost per launch from $62 million to about $30 million, and gives SpaceX a major advantage against the competition. The SpaceX reusable rockets currently reduce costs by more than half and have forced American and foreign launch providers to try and come up with something that can compete. SpaceX has been using its reusable first stage tech successfully for ten years and that track record has caused most SLV providers to lose business. Even American startups like Blue Origin and Rocket Lab failed to create viable competition for SpaceX. Several foreign nations, including China, are trying to emulate SpaceX, but so far have not been successful.

SpaceX is a non-government operation that takes the lead and does not fear failure. The early development of Falcon was full of expensive failures that eventually, and rather quickly produced a cheaper and more reliable series of SLVs. The American competition, and some foreign government owned companies, were unable to compete.

Economic disruptions created by the current Russian invasion of Ukraine had some beneficial effects. Two examples are the accelerated demise of the American ULA (United Launch Alliance) monopoly and the elimination of Roscosmos, the Russian government organization controlling all space program activities, as major competitors for new companies like SpaceX.

ULA was already in trouble before the invasion. In 2006 veteran space program suppliers Lockheed Martin and Boeing formed a legal cartel that monopolized satellite launch services for the U.S. government. After 2006 all this business was to go to a government-approved monopoly called the ULA which gets Atlas 5 SLVs (Satellite Launch Vehicles) from Lockheed Martin and Delta 4 SLVs from Boeing. These two firms have dominated U.S. space launches for over half a century and in 2006 they monopolized it. But not for long, as the future arrived unexpectedly in the form of SpaceX, a new firm that required no guaranteed government contracts or any government subsidies and did what ULA did but faster and cheaper.

If you want speed of launch after a request is made, there is Firefly Aerospace and its Alpha rocket. This 54-t0n rocket can carry a 1.1-ton payload into a 200 kilometers LEO (Low Earth Orbit) or a 630 kg payload into a 500 kilometer SSO (Sun Synchronous Orbit). The body of the Alpha rocket is made of composites, which are lighter and reduce the fuel needed. Alpha has demonstrated that it can be kept standing by, unfueled, but be fueled, payload added to the second stage and launched within 24 hours. Normally it takes at least a week, and usually longer to carry out a launch. Using solid fuel rockets for quick launch limits payload weight because liquid fueled rockets can carry more weight into orbit. Despite that, some retired ballistic missiles have been used successfully for quick satellite launches.

Russia has tried this, but the state-owned Roscosmos has been a monopoly since 2015 when it absorbed the few remaining space program entities it did not already control. One item Roscosmos and ULA had in common was the Russian RD-180 rocket engine, which is used for both the Atlas and Delta SLVs. The Atlas SLV is retiring in a few years and the ULA already received all the RD-180 rockets needed for its remaining Atlas SLV launches. This was demanded by Congress after the 2014 Russian attack on Ukraine.

The ULA monopoly is not absolute. Since 2013 NASA has been using the Antares SLV from Northrup-Grumman, a veteran aerospace firm that was getting back into the SLV business via this medium sized rocket. Antares uses RD-181 rockets, which consist of components made in Russia and Ukraine. Russia is now banned from supplying its RD-181 components while the two Ukrainian firms that build RD-181 components have been attacked by Russian missiles during the current invasion and may undergo more such attacks. One of those Ukrainian firms also produced the RD-843 rockets for upper stages of European Vega SLVs. Russia has threatened to cease all cooperation on supporting the ISS, but quietly suggested that a deal was possible if adjustments were made to the economic sanctions recently inflicted on Russia because of its current Ukraine invasion.

Russian threats have accelerated efforts by American and European firms to build supply and crew capsules to replace the Soyuz capsules. SpaceX has already developed a cargo capsule that has been in regular use since 2010 and its crew capsule was recently approved for regular use.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close