A reusable launch system is a space launch system that includes the recovery of some or all of the component stages. To date, several fully reusable sub-orbital systems and partially reusable orbital systems have been flown. No fully reusable orbital launch system has yet been demonstrated.
During the 21st century, commercial interest in reusable launch systems has grown, with several active launchers. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has a reusable first stage and capsule (for Dragon flights) and expendable second stage, The Spaceship Company has flown reusable suborbital spaceplanes, and the suborbital Blue Origin New Shepard rocket has recoverable first stages and crew capsules.
Expendable rockets air launched from aircraft can be considered partially reusable if the aircraft is thought of as the first stage of the launch vehicle. An example of this configuration is the Orbital Sciences Pegasus.
Vehicles that land horizontally on a runway require wings and undercarriage. These typically consume about 9-12% of the landing vehicle mass, which either reduces the payload or increases the size of the vehicle. Concepts such as lifting bodies offer some reduction in wing mass, as does the delta wing shape of the Space Shuttle.
Vertical landings can be accomplished either with parachutes (as with Soyuz) or propusively. The DC-X is an example of a propulsive lander, and the Falcon 9 rocket is the first orbital rocket to vertically land its first stage on the ground. This typically requires about 10% of the total first stage propellant, reducing the payload that can be carried due to the rocket equation.
Reuse hardware/landing propellant
Reusable stages mass more than equivalent expendable stages. This is unavoidable due to the supplementary systems and/or surplus propellant needed to land a stage. The actual mass penalty depends on the vehicle and the return mode chosen.
Reentry heat shielding
Thermal Protection Systems (TPS) can be made of a variety of materials, including reinforced carbon-carbon and ablative materials. Historically these materials were first developed on ICBM MIRVs. However, the requirements of reusable space systems differ from those of single use reentry vehicles, especially with regards to heat shield requirements. In particular the need for durable high emissivity coatings that can withstand multiple thermal cycles constitutes a key requirement in the development of new reusable spacecraft. Current materials for such high emissivity coatings include transition metal disilicides.
Early ideas of a single-stage reusable spaceplane proved unrealistic and although even the first practical rocket vehicles (V-2) could reach the fringes of space, re-usable technology was too heavy. In addition many early rockets were developed to deliver weapons, making reuse impossibly by design. The problem of mass efficiency was overcome by using multiple expendable stages in a vertical-launch multistage rocket. The first re-usable stages did not appear until the advent of the US Space Shuttle in 1981.
The late 1960s saw the start of the Space Shuttle design process, resulting in a reusable orbiter spacecraft and solid rocket boosters with an expendable external tank. The Shuttle was much more expensive to operate than an expendable launch system.
NASA proposed risky reusable concepts to replace the Shuttle technology, to be demonstrated under the X-33 and X-34 programs, which were both cancelled in the early 2000s due to rising costs and technical issues. The Space Shuttle retired in 2011.
The Ansari X Prize contest was intended to develop private suborbital reusable vehicles. Many private companies competed, with the winner, Scaled Composites, reaching the Kármán line twice in a two-week period with their reusable SpaceShipOne.
On 23 November 2015 the Blue Origin New Shepard rocket became the first Vertical Take-Off/Landing (VTOL) rocket to reach space by passing the Kármán line (100 kilometres), reaching 329,839 feet (100.5 kilometers) before returning to a parachute landing.
The first Falcon 9 second flight occurred on 30 March 2017. SpaceX now routinely recovers and reuses their first stages, with the intent of reusing fairings as well.
List of active reusable launch systems
|Blue Origin||New Shepard||US||Suborbital||Prototype|
|ISRO||RLV-TD||India||Suborbital||Project||Successful flight test|
|The Spaceship Company||SpaceShipTwo||US||Suborbital||Prototype|
|SpaceX||Falcon 9||US||Orbital||Operational||First stage and fairing reusable.|
|SpaceX||Falcon Heavy||US||Orbital||Operational||Core and side boosters and fairing reusable.|
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Reusable manned spacecraft.|
- Illustration of a Space shuttle at takeoff and Orbiter (Visual Dictionary - QAInternational)