On March 30th, SpaceX made history when it became the first to launch and land a refurbished rocket into orbital space. Seriously, it was fucking awesome. But Elon Musk and co. aren’t stopping there. According to Musk’s Twitter, SpaceX aims to launch a reused upper stage by late next next year in order “to get to 100%” reusability. That’s right: Musk doesn’t just want to reuse the first stage booster, which is estimated to cut down launch costs by up to 30 percent. He wants to reuse the whole damn rocket.
Some salient questions remain, however. What does a 100 percent reusable rocket even look like? And can 100 percent reusability be achieved given such a tight timeline?
Phil Larson, former Obama space policy advisor and SpaceX official, is pretty confident the company can pull it off. “It is an interesting concept,” he told Gizmodo. “As we’ve all seen, they can make the impossible possible. So recovering and reusing 100 percent of the hardware is definitely possible, but just like landing rockets on drone ships it will be a challenging engineering problem, which is what they do so well.”
— Staniel Chairhead (@chairheadMD) April 7, 2017
Setting the company’s history of high-profile explosions aside, SpaceX has indeed pulled the proverbial rabbit out of the hat several times. Launching and landing upper stage refurbished rockets seems like the next logical step for the company. But does that make a rocket fully recyclable?
“It’s good to recycle as much as possible, but often you’ll read the fine print and you’ll see that the products could only be recycled once, or it’s actually 10 percent recycled material and the rest is new,” Ella Atkins, a professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Michigan, told Gizmodo. “So I think one has to be a little careful when they talk about the notion of reusing rockets, in that it doesn’t mean that every last piece on the rocket is going to be reused.”
Atkins added that she does think it’s feasible for SpaceX to have a rocket that they can call fully reuse by 2018. That said, it’s unclear what parts of the refurbished rocket will be exchanged for new ones, and how much that will cut into SpaceX’s bottom line. Part of the reason NASA’s Space Shuttle wound up being so expensive was the extraordinarily high cost of refurbishment.
“If I get a refurbished laptop, they will have swapped out the motherboard,” Atkins said. “The other components would still be there, but sometimes, it’s the most expensive parts that are replaced when your thing is refurbished. I think the same thing would happen with rockets.”Gizmodo has reached out to SpaceX for comment on what parts are typically swapped before a refurbished rocket is ready to launch again.
Ideally, rockets would function like airplanes—they’d launch, land, fuel up and get ready to do it all over again. But there’s significantly more wear and tear associated with exiting and entering Earth’s atmosphere, and according to Atkins, we’re a long way from figuring out how to make rockets like high-functioning aircrafts.
“That’s the dream,” she said. “But if you need a new part, you need a new part.” Lengthy refurbishment and inspection processes might hinder Musk’s recently-announced goal of ensuring rockets are ready to fly again within 24 hours of being launched and landed. It took roughly a year between the launch and landing of SpaceX’s first reused rocket, so this timeline seems a little tight—for now.
Still, it’s good to have lofty ambitions, and that’s one thing SpaceX has a lot of. They also have a lot of money, which is generally good for building things that fly into space.
Overall, things are looking up for SpaceX’s push toward reusability. According to Larson, the process is still evolving.
“They may shift to manufacturing a majority of new second stages, and only a number of new first stages each year will be needed,” he told Gizmodo. “That’s something that will be determined over time as they perfect the refurbishment requirements.”
It’ll be an interesting ride to watch SpaceX (and its competitors) use reusable rockets to duke it out for Space Supremacy. We can only hope that when the time comes, they’ll give us some discounted tickets to Mars.