Now that SpaceX appears on the verge of being the first to reuse rocket hardware since NASA with the U.S. space shuttle, investors and competitors are sharpening their pencils to assess the business case.
The prima facie appeal of reusing rockets has always obscured the challenges of refurbishing, at low cost, a rocket stage and engine bloc that has suffered the stresses of hurtling through the atmosphere in advance of landing.
“It’s quite fundamental,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk said April 8 after the Falcon 9 first stage made a clean touchdown on a drone ship located offshore the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, as part of a successful mission to deliver supplies to the international space station for NASA. The stage has since been returned to port and will be repeatedly test-fired to determine its fitness for reuse as early as this year.
“It’s just as fundamental in rocketry as it is in other forms of transport – such as cars or planes or bicycles,” Musk said in a post-launch briefing.
NASA engineering veterans of the space shuttle would surely agree about its being fundamental. But after beating their heads against the problem for years, they also would say it’s much more difficult than hopping back into your car.
“The SSMEs were reusable,” Dan Dumbacher, former NASA deputy associated administrator for exploration systems development, said of the space shuttle main engines. “We tried to make them reusable for 55 flights. Look how long and how much money it took for us to do that, and we still weren’t completely successful for all the parts. I want to be realistic: We are not as smart as we think we are and we don’t understand the environment as well as we think we do.”