Back in 2011, SpaceX released a concept video of what their reusable rockets might one day look like. The backing music, Uprising by Muse, was deliberately picked according to Ars Technica, signifying the shake-up SpaceX expected to produce in the launch industry.
And that seems to have been pretty apt. Following their groundbreaking relaunch and landing of a previously flown rocket booster last month, SpaceX’s competitors are now scrambling to keep up with a company once bemoaned as being too ambitious.
“A few years ago, players in the major rocket companies were telling me that the Musk approach would never be profitable,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told IFLScience. “Now all of them are looking at least at some limited moves in the direction of reusability.”
If SpaceX can refine their reusability aspect, they could bring the cost of launching down by a factor of 100 by their claims, and have a turnaround for each launch of 24 hours. This would be a huge game changer. After all, if you can launch with SpaceX more quickly and at less cost, why would you go with anyone else?
Already we’ve seen that the United Launch Alliance (ULA), a conglomerate of Boeing and Lockheed Martin and arguably the world’s biggest launch operator, had to reshape its future plans. They’re developing a new rocket called Vulcan, and after seeing what SpaceX was doing with reusable rockets, they announced back in 2015 they too were looking at reusing the first stage engines of the rocket. Their ambitious plan will see it captured in mid-air by a helicopter.
“ULA’s approach is SMART [Sensible, Modular, Autonomous Return Technology] re-use,” Lyn Chassagne, a spokesperson for ULA, told IFLScience. “The SMART initiative will be introduced into Vulcan Centaur, allowing ULA to reuse the most expensive portion of the first stage – the booster main engines – via mid-air capture. This allows a controlled recovery environment providing the confidence needed to re-fly the hardware.”
Russia, too, appears to be changing its tune. Their fleet of Proton and Soyuz launchers are arguably the world’s most reliable rockets, but they’ve been largely unchallenged for the better part of five decades. The Soyuz rocket that still launches astronauts and cargo regularly is essentially the same as the rocket that took Yuri Gagarin to space in 1961.
Once, Russia said the economic feasibility of reusable rockets was “not obvious”. Now, with SpaceX on the scene, things aren’t looking great for them. They’re now looking at developing their own reusable rockets, running some “pilot projects” to do so.
Musk’s company, along with Boeing, are both contracted to start transporting astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA as early as next year. Previously, NASA had paid Russia upwards of $60 million for a seat on Soyuz. That money will now be gone, leading Russia to consider reducing the number of people it launches on each flight from three to two.
And just last week, it was announced that one of SpaceX’s major competitors, the private company Orbital ATK, will develop new medium and heavy-lift rockets to compete with SpaceX on cost. According to Space.com, they’re not looking at reusability, but will instead try to keep costs low by using common components in their rockets, although it’s not entirely clear what that means.
“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space could be reduced significantly,” Ben Goldberg, Ph.D., Senior Director of Engineering for Orbital ATK’s Propulsion Systems Division, told IFLScience. “A fully reusable vehicle has never been done or designed. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.”
Perhaps the only company keeping pace with SpaceX in terms of reusability is Blue Origin, run by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. They beat SpaceX to the first ever launch and landing of a rocket to space, and now have their eye on space tourism (an area SpaceX isn’t really going into yet). Ultimately, though, they want to develop an orbital rocket called New Glenn, which may become one of SpaceX’s biggest competitors in terms of cost.
Whether SpaceX can deliver on their drastic cost and time estimates remains to be seen. But they’ve proved many wrong before, so it’d be a brave person to bet against them again. For those trying to compete with them for launch contracts, it might be time to realize they can deliver on their promises, Uprising and all.