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A reusable launch system is a launch system that allows for the reuse of some or all of the component stages. To date, several fully reusable suborbital systems and partially reusable orbital systems have been flown.
During the 21st century, commercial interest in reusable launch systems has grown considerably, with several active launchers. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said that if one can figure out how to reuse rockets like airplanes then the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred. SpaceX's 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.
Reusable launch systems may be either fully or partially reusable.
Full reusable systems can be single stage to orbit (SSTO), as well as multiple (two- or three)-stage to orbit systems. Fully reusable systems are yet to be proven viable; theoretical single stage systems and the second stage of existing partially reusable multiple stage designs are not reusable yet.
Partial reusable launch systems, in the form of multiple stage to orbit systems have been so far the only reusable configurations in use.
Existing reusable launch systems use rocket propelled vertical liftoff.
Other than that a range of non-rocket liftoff systems have been proposed and explored over time as reusable systems for liftoff, from balloons[relevant?] to space elevators. Existing examples are systems which employ winged horizontal jet-engine powered liftoff. Such aircraft can air launch expendable rockets and can because of that be considered partially reusable systems if the aircraft is thought of as the first stage of the launch vehicle. An example of this configuration is the Orbital Sciences Pegasus. For suborbital flight the SpaceShipTwo uses for liftoff a carrier plane, its mothership the Scaled Composites White Knight Two.
So far, launch systems achieve orbital insertion with multistaged rockets, particularly with the second and third stages. Only the Space Shuttle has achieved a partial reuse of the orbital insertion stage, by using the engines of its orbiter.
Launch systems can be combined with reusable orbiters. The Space Shuttle orbiter, SpaceShipTwo and the being tested Indian RLV-TD are examples for a reusable space vehicle (a spaceplane) as well as a part of its launch system.
As with launch vehicles, all pure spacecraft during the early decades of human capacity to achieve spaceflight were designed to be single-use items. This was true both for satellites and space probes intended to be left in space for a long time, as well as any object designed to return to Earth such as human-carrying space capsules or the sample return canisters of space matter collection missions like Stardust (1999–2006) or Hayabusa (2005–2010). Exceptions to the general rule for space vehicles were the US Gemini SC-2, the Soviet Union spacecraft Vozvraschaemyi Apparat (VA), the US Space Shuttle orbiter (mid-1970s-2011, with 135 flights between 1981 and 2011) and the Soviet Buran (1980-1988, with just one uncrewed test flight in 1988). Both of these spaceships were also an integral part of the launch system (providing launch acceleration) as well as operating as medium-duration spaceships in space. This began to change in the mid-2010s.
In the 2010s, the space transport cargo capsule from one of the suppliers resupplying the International Space Station was designed for reuse, and after 2017, NASA began to allow the reuse of the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft on these NASA-contracted transport routes. This was the beginning of design and operation of a reusable space vehicle.
Since then also the Boeing Starliner capsules reduce their fall speed with parachutes and deploy an airbag shortly before touchdown on the ground, in order to retrieve and reuse the vehicle.
As of 2020[update], SpaceX is currently building and testing the Starship spaceship to be capable of surviving multiple hypersonic reentries through the atmosphere so that they become truly reusable long-duration spaceships; no Starship reuse flights have yet occurred.
With possible inflatable heat shields, as developed by the US (Low Earth Orbit Flight Test Inflatable Decelerator - LOFTID) and China, single-use rockets like the Space Launch System are considered to be retrofitted with such heat shields to salvage the expensive engines, possibly reducing the costs of launches significantly.
These are landing systems that employ parachutes and bolstered hard landings, like in a splashdown at sea or a touchdown at land.
Single or main stages, as well as fly-back boosters can employ a horizontal landing system.
A variant is an in-air-capture tow back system, advocated by a company called EMBENTION with its FALCon project.
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.
Systems like the McDonnell Douglas DC-X (Delta Clipper) and those by SpaceX are examples of a retrograde system. The boosters of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy land using one of their nine engines. The Falcon 9 rocket is the first orbital rocket to vertically land its first stage on the ground. Both stages of Starship are planned to land vertically.
Reusable stages weigh more than equivalent expendable stages. This is unavoidable due to the supplementary systems, landing gear and/or surplus propellant needed to land a stage. The actual mass penalty depends on the vehicle and the return mode chosen.
After the launcher lands, it may need to be refurbished to prepare it for its next flight. This process may be lengthy and expensive. And the launcher may not be able to be recertified as human-rated after refurbishment. There is eventually a limit on how many times a launcher can be refurbished before it has to be retired, but how often a spacecraft can be reused differs significantly between the various launch system designs.
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, reusable technology was too heavy. In addition many early rockets were developed to deliver weapons, making reuse impossible by design. The problem of mass efficiency was overcome by using multiple expendable stages in a vertical-launch multistage rocket. USAF and NACA had been studying orbital reusable spaceplanes since 1958, e.g. Dyna-Soar, but the first reusable stages did not fly until the advent of the US Space Shuttle in 1981.
Perhaps the first reusable launch vehicles were the ones conceptualized and studied by Wernher von Braun from 1948 until 1956. The Von Braun Ferry Rocket underwent two revisions: once in 1952 and again in 1956. They would have landed using parachutes.
The General Dynamics Nexus was proposed in the 1960s as a fully reusable successor to the Saturn V rocket, having the capacity of transporting up to 450–910 t (990,000–2,000,000 lb) to orbit. See also Sea Dragon, and Douglas SASSTO.
The BAC Mustard was studied starting in 1964. It would have comprised three identical spaceplanes strapped together and arranged in two stages. During ascent the two outer spaceplanes, which formed the first stage, would detach and glide back individually to earth. It was canceled after the last study of the design in 1967 due to a lack of funds for development.
NASA started the Space Shuttle design process in 1968, with the vision of creating a fully reusable spaceplane using a crewed fly-back booster. This concept proved expensive and complex, therefore the design was scaled back to reusable solid rocket boosters and an expendable external tank. The Shuttle was more expensive to operate over its 30-year lifetime than an expendable launch system would have been. Space Shuttle Columbia launched and landed 27 times and was lost with all crew on the 28th landing attempt; Challenger launched and landed 9 times and was lost with all crew on the 10th launch attempt; Discovery launched and landed 39 times; Atlantis launched and landed 33 times.
NASA proposed 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 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 New Shepard rocket became the first Vertical Take-off, Vertical Landing (VTVL) sub-orbital rocket to reach space by passing the Kármán line (100 km or 62 mi), reaching 329,839 ft (100,535 m) before returning for a propulsive landing.
In 2019 Rocket Lab announced plans to recover and reuse the first stage of their Electron launch vehicle, intending to use parachutes and mid-air retrieval. On 20 November 2020, Rocket Lab successfully returned an Electron first stage from an orbital launch, the stage softly splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.
As of May 2020[update], the only operational reusable orbital-class launch systems are the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, the latter of which is based upon the Falcon 9. SpaceX is also developing the fully-reusable Starship launch system, and Blue Origin is developing its own New Glenn partially-reusable orbital rocket, as it is intending to recover and reuse only the first stage.
In December 2020, ESA signed contracts to start developing THEMIS, a prototype reusable first stage launcher.
|Blue Origin||New Shepard||US||Suborbital||Under development||Fully reusable|
|Blue Origin||New Glenn||US||Orbital||Under development||First stage reusable|
|Rocket Lab||Electron||New Zealand||Orbital||Operational||First stage recovered but not yet reused.|
|Rocket Lab||Neutron||New Zealand||Orbital||Under development||First stage reusable|
|United Launch Alliance||Vulcan Centaur||US||Orbital||Under development||First stage engine module reusable in a later development.|
|ISRO||RLV-TD||India||Suborbital||Project||Successfully flight tested, Fully reusable.|
|Virgin Galactic||SpaceShipTwo||US||Suborbital||Prototype||Designed for space tourism. Fully reusable|
|SpaceX||Falcon 9||US||Orbital||Operational||First stage and fairing reusable.|
|SpaceX||Falcon Heavy||US||Orbital||Operational||Core, side boosters and fairing reusable.|
|NASA||Space Shuttle||US||Orbital||Retired||Orbiter and side boosters reusable at great expense|
|NPO-Energia||Energia-Buran||USSR||Orbital||Retired||Only Buran orbiter payload reusable; Energia launcher fully expended.|
|ESA||Themis||EU||Orbital||Under development||Prototype, aiming for first stage reuse|
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