It has been five decades since the moon landing. However, spaceflight remains very expensive, so much so that nothing on a similar scale has been tried in the times since. One of the causes for this expense is that the existing launch systems are either no reusable or not fully reusable, meaning that a considerable portion of what would be fixed expenses for other means of transportation are variable expenses instead when heading into outer space. This is a serious issue because said expenses aren’t spread out over a number of trips but are instead incurred again and again with each subsequent trip, thus making spaceflight that much more difficult to support from a financial perspective. Still, the matter is far from being hopeless. There are a lot of people out there who see space as the next frontier for the human species, which in turn, means that there is a lot of interest in reusable rockets as well as other tech advancements connected to spaceflight. After all, reusable rockets are needed for convenient spaceflight, which in turn, is needed if more ambitious plans for outer space can succeed.
Why Is a Reusable Rocket So Difficult to Make?
Having said that, there is more than one reason why a reusable rocket is so difficult to make. For instance, getting into outer space is still very challenging with our current technological capabilities. This is because rockets have to carry very heavy loads to perform their intended function. In part, this means the spacecraft that is being sent to outer space by the rocket. However, it should also be noted that rockets must be propelled into position by using high-speed exhaust gases, which means carrying not just an enormous amount of rocket fuel but also an enormous amount of oxygen so that the rocket fuel can be burned up. As such, there isn’t a great deal of metaphorical room for maneuvering when it comes to existing rocket designs that can be used to make them reusable.
Besides that, there is at least one other important consideration in the form of cost considerations. This can sound strange considering aforementioned claim that reusuable rockets would be cheaper than their non-reusable counterparts in the long run, but the fact of the matter is that said comparison is reliant on certain circumstances for it to be true. In particular, it is reliant on there being enough trips to outer space to make the cost, time, and effort needed to develop reusable rockets worthwhile, which is by no means guaranteed to be the case. For example, NASA could have put more of its limited resources into making the rockets used to send up the Apollo missions reusable to some extent, but there wasn’t much of a point when those missions were so limited in number, particularly when reused rockets can come with high costs in the form of refurbishing and recertification. Instead, reusable rockets are being pursued in the present time based on the assumption that spaceflight will become a regular occurrence, in which case, trips to outer space will become numerous enough to make the effort worthwhile.
Will We Ever See a Reusable Rocket?
Predicting the future is rather challenging to say the least. Even if someone has managed to produce a perfect system for predicting the future by analyzing current trends, there is still the matter of providing it with sufficient information within a short enough time frame. Still, while nothing is ever guaranteed, it seems reasonable to say that reusable rockets will come into existence at some point in the future. In part, this is because of the aforementioned interest in the concept of reusable rockets. For the time being, NASA isn’t interested. However, spaceflight has expanded beyond national spaceflight agencies, as shown by how a number of U.S.-based private spaceflight companies are looking into the matter in the present time. Moreover, it isn’t unknown for national spaceflight agencies other than NASA to take an interest in reusable rockets as well, with an excellent example being India’s ISRO’s work on the RLV-TD.
With that said, the more encouraging piece of news might be how there has been progress made on launch systems that are reusable in part. In particular, it is worth mentioning SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, which aren’t just prototypes but already operational in the present time. For the Falcon 9, it is a two-stage rocket with a reusable first stage that takes the rocket to an altitude of about 100 km before the second stage kicks in to cover the rest of the distance to actual orbit. Once separated, the first stage can return to the Earth where small thrusters mounted on its nose can use a controlled blast to bring it into a position for a safe landing so that it can be recovered and reused. Meanwhile, the Falcon Heavy has both core and side boosters that are reusable. Neither of these rockets haven’t gotten to where they are without the people behind them running into serious issues along the way, but the fact that they exist in the present time should make it clear that it is possible for rockets to be made reusable to various extents.
When Will We Ever See a Reusable Rocket?
Time will tell whether people will ever come up with a fully reusable rocket. However, considering the interest that exists in the topic, it seems reasonable to speculate that it is something that could happen within a foreseeable time frame rather than something so far out that it is better-suited for science fiction. Reusable rockets will be critical for enabling regular spaceflight, which in turn, would enable operations in outer spaces that are impractical in the present time. As a result, whenever they come into existence, it will be very interesting to see their effects on modern societies, though chances are good that the changes will already be in motion before their introduction.