Return of Reusable Spacecrafts

by | Mar 22, 2022 | News Articles, Product, Space Exploration

On the evening of 10 February, 2022, Elon Musk went on stage to give a formal update on the Starship with a 75-minute presentation while standing in front of one at the SpaceX facility, nicknamed Starbase, in Boca Chica, Texas. Despite being the first update on the project in two years with high hopes from enthusiasts, the SpaceX CEO’s update on the next-generation rocket was frustratingly vague and fairly straightforward: Delay is to be expected, but Musk feels “highly confident that [the Starship] will get to orbit this year”.

Otherwise, much of the grand presentation, which included a fancy animation of a human crew traveling to their Mars base on the Starship, revolved around the technical details and engineering marvels of the spacecraft. Most of what was presented was already public knowledge that can also be gleaned from the SpaceX website.

Animation of Musk’s futuristic vision for Starship to transport human crew to Mars base (SpaceX)

Even though part of the delay may arise from the environmental assessment of the Starbase by the Federal Aviation Administration to license the facility to test flights, Musk also cited the technical difficulties for the project’s setback, including the melting issue of the “Raptor 2” engines for the Super Heavy rocket that will help to carry the Starship to orbit.

Towering at almost 120m, the stacked Starship system, a vehicle which Musk claims to be the ‘holy grail’ of space travel, is set to be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built. They are larger than any of NASA’s rockets with almost double the thrust in liftoff. More importantly, Starship is being designed to be completely and ‘rapidly’ reusable. This would mean that both the Starship spacecraft and its Super Heavy launch booster are intended to be reused multiple times.

Animation of the Starship rocket system with its Super Heavy launchers taking off (SpaceX)

In fact, Musk aspires for the rocket to be able to launch three times daily, with orbital refilling to assist the spacecraft for longer journeys. The ‘rapid reusability’ doesn’t end at being able to launch thrice a day but is also exhibited in the ship’s ability to be reused every six to eight hours and its launch booster reused every hour.

The reusability feature may sound like the latest, state-of-the-art solution to ensure sustainability in aerospace engineering. It has taken the global limelight after being especially hyped in being the hallmark of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

The Space Shuttle in comparison with other spacecrafts, including SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Starship (BBC)

On the contrary, it is actually not a recent innovation. Reusable spacecraft is a concept that has been around for a couple of decades, starting with ​​NASA’s space shuttle — the world’s first reusable spacecraft.

Unlike the SpaceX vehicles where the spacecrafts are designed to lift off and touch down in an upright manner, the space shuttle was engineered to launch vertically into space like a rocket, but land back onto Earth horizontally, similar to an aircraft landing. Developed to transport heavy payloads into orbit, including the Hubble Space Telescope, and even bring them back for repairs, the space shuttle was a major contributor to building the International Space Station (ISS) over the course of 13 years.

Unfortunately, despite the unparalleled contributions of the space shuttle missions, the programme was discontinued in 2011. NASA has depended on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to send their astronauts to the ISS since then. Part of the reason for the end of the space shuttle programme was that it was simply too expensive. In other words, each space shuttle mission cost NASA almost $450 million to launch.

But the more pressing reason to retire the space shuttle programme was the concern for astronaut safety. In 1986, the launch failure disaster of the Space Shuttle Challenger resulted in the death of seven astronauts. The world also witnessed the loss of another seven-membered crew on board the fatal Space Shuttle Columbia when it disintegrated as it reentered the atmosphere in 2003. After which, the space shuttle programme was suspended for two years.

Space Shuttle Columbia taking off from the launch pad (NASA)

By 2004, the catastrophic missions and high maintenance costs brought about by the space shuttle programme prompted the U.S. government and NASA to cancel the programme as they saw better opportunities in directing more funds toward the ISS.

On the economical front, despite Musk being discreet about the finances of SpaceX, the company aims to fare better as their CEO claims the Starship launch could cost an estimated of less than $10 million, and get even more affordable (down to a few million dollars) as the flight rate of the Starships climbs.

While SpaceX will mostly test initial Starship flights with carrying satellites and smaller payloads, they already have their first customers, Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa and a dozen artists, ready for the Starship’s first human flight.

Illustration of Starship landing NASA astronauts on the lunar surface (SpaceX)

But the return of human crew launches back to U.S. soil is no longer a distant thought. NASA has awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to engage the Starship for the Artemis programme to ferry astronauts to the moon by 2025.