Rocket development has become one of the most critical areas of study in the modern technology niche. Most well-developed countries are looking forward to exploring space nowadays. Various types of space equipment and gear are being developed for space exploration.

How did the idea of using Reusable Rockets arise?

Some companies are working on developing affordable launch vehicles for satellite launches. This has led to the development of reusable rockets. However, this is still a heated debate in this industry, with many believing that such technology should ideally be used just once.

Of course, the idea of reusable rockets is not new. Many countries have been spending time, money, and effort to create technology that can be used for multiple launches. Not all these efforts bore any fruits – in fact, only a few companies, like SpaceX, managed to take steps ahead.

However, many rocket development business companies believed that the development of such rockets needs to be discouraged because multiple launches will start affecting these reusable rockets. For instance, you would require a staff of good technicians to keep the rocket running for various uses. Of course, no one would use these units without checking their conditions, as the crew members’ lives and expensive equipment are too important to risk.

Reusable rocket development: Why is it so difficult?

The main challenge of building reusable long-duration spaceships is mostly about getting the vehicle back intact. For instance, let us look into the first stage of a typical rocket launch. Once it has boosted the upper stages, it will just be a delicate metal tube in the atmosphere falling back into the ocean at the speed of sound. It is almost impossible to survive falling through the atmosphere at this speed. Additionally, falling into the ocean is also not suitable for fragile aerospace components.

However, scientists and engineers have come up with some solutions for recovering the spent first stage. For instance, the Space Shuttle rocket boosters used parachutes to glide towards the ocean; however, they were heavy and sturdy steel tubes that could take a lot of abuse. The same could not be said for others.

All this additional research and hardware to make the first stage reusable will end up costing a lot of money. Most units fly once in a while; therefore, the effort for developing reusability for them was not worth it. If you plan on launching once or twice a year, converting the rockets into reusable ones will cost you almost ten times more.

On the other hand, recovering the upper stages is even harder for reusable rocket development. For a typical two-stage rocket, it is the second stage that gets the rocket going at orbital speed. If the rocket survives falling at this orbital speed, it needs a heat-shield system that older rockets used to have. These shields are costly to develop and manufacture; additionally, they would require a lot of repair before launches, which would only increase the cost. You would also have to fit in a retro-rocket system to ensure that the reentering angle is right and a way to navigate to ensure that you land on the landing barge or the runway.

If we are to talk about reusable SSTO rockets, there still lies the problem of surviving the reentry at orbital speeds. Additionally, you need to apply the concept to the whole rocket, not just the first stage.

Why NASA didn’t develop Reusable Rockets?

NASA has never been in the business of rocket development. The space industry giant only gets involved in the development of units when the commercial market cannot provide a product that can fulfill the company’s needs. The works and development of rockets are so low that reusability is not worthwhile for NASA.

NASA has stated that reusable rockets will only become valuable if the frequency of launches is greater than the cost of developing and using the said technology. For instance, the Apollo project funds would have been wasted in making the Saturn V reusable. In this case, it was much cheaper and economical to use a disposable rocket.

Why NASA did not produce reusable rockets - Apollo 11 launch
The Apollo 11 Saturn V lifts off at 9:32 a.m. EDT July 16, 1969, from Kennedy’s Launch Complex 39A. Apollo project funds would have been wasted in making the Saturn V reusable. In this case, it was much cheaper and economical to use a disposable rocket.

In the case of the Space Shuttle, NASA planned to perform frequent launches. Therefore, the Solid Rocket Boosters and the Orbiter were designed to be reusable. However, the External Tank was not deemed to be worth converting into a reusable version.

While the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) were reusable and were supposed to be used on the SLS rocket, NASA eventually did not reuse them. According to the company, refurbishing and recertification would make them more costly than simply manufacturing new engines.

Russia and French did work together to create a reusable rocket called the Ariane 5. However, the hardware required to support the unit’s return turned out to be too large to be worth the effort.

Making a rocket reusable is not an easy task. Most rocket building companies would require a large investment and modern technologies that do not exist in this time when current rockets are designed for one-time use only. Not all countries can afford to make such an investment in the space sector until there is a significant financial profit.

What are the future perspectives of Reusable Rockets?

In today’s time, there are not many things that can change this situation for the better for most governments. Projects like Mars or Moon colonization can push this movement in the right direction. The use of reusable rockets will only become urgent when space travel becomes a real thing

Most space vehicles and rockets are being used only to deliver hardware to the orbit of the Earth. Thanks to the technological advancements made in this sector, there is no need to send astronauts to fix something; most work can be done via computers. Using space drones has also become very popular. However, when it is time to cross the boundaries of the Earth’s orbit more frequently, reusable rockets will have found their purpose. For now, this aspect of the industry remains in doubt.

What are your thoughts on this? Let us know in the comments!

Thomas Glare

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