Reusable launch system


The Space Shuttle Columbia launching on the first Space Shuttle mission
The first (partially) reusable space launch system, the Space Shuttle Columbia, at its first launch 1981 (STS-1).

A reusable launch system is a launch system that includes the recovery of some or all of the component stages. To date, several fully reusable suborbital systems and partially reusable orbital systems have been flown.

The first reusable launch vehicle to reach orbit was the Space Shuttle, which failed to accomplish the intended goal of reducing launch costs to below those of expendable launch systems. 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.[1]

During the 21st century, commercial interest in reusable launch systems has grown considerably, with several active launchers. The 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.


Most launch systms are rocket based, but there are also non-rocket spacelaunch systems, or combinations thereof.

Full reusable launch systems

Full reusable systems can be single stage to orbit (SSTO) as well as multiple (two or three) stage to orbit systems. Such systems are yet to be proven viable with particularly second stage designs not being reusable yet.

After cancled attempts to design the second stage of the Falcon 9 reusable, the focus shifted to the SpaceX Starship concept which aims to accomplish full reusability.

Partial reusable launch systems

Partial reusable launch systems, in the form of multiple stage to orbit systems have been so far the only reusable configurations in use.

Reusable space vehicle

Launch systems can combine reusable space vehicles. The Space Shuttle for example was a reusable space vehicle (a spaceplane) as well as a part of its launch system.

More contemporarily the Falcon 9 launch system has carried reusable vehicles such as the X-37, combining two reusable vehicles.

Contemporary reusable orbital vehicles include the X-37, the Dream Chaser, the Dragon 2, the European Space Rider (successor to the IXV) and the Indian RLV Technology Demonstration Programme and Avatar.

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 cannisters of space matter collection missions like Stardust (1999–2006)[2] or Hayabusa (2005–2010).[3][4] Exceptions to the general rule for space vehicles were the US Space Shuttle (mid-1970s-2011, with 135 flights between 1981 and 2011) and the Soviet Union 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,[5] 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. As of 2020, 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. But no Starship reuse flights have yet occurred.


Extra weight

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.[6]

Liftoff systems

Conventional launch systems use rockets to liftoff predominantly vertically.

Other systems employ horizontal liftoff, as in the case of SpaceShipTwo which uses a carrier plane for liftoff.

A range of non-rocket liftoff systems have been proposed and explored over time, from balloons[7][relevant? ] to space elevators, either as single or hybrid systems.

Entry systems

Heat shield

With possible inflateable heat shields, as developed by the US (Low Earth Orbit Flight Test Inflatable Decelerator - LOFTID)[8] and China[9], 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.[10]


Launch systems like the Falcon 9 employ for their reusable stages not only at landing retrograde burns, but also at re-entry and even boostback burns.

Landing systems

Reusable systems can come in single or multiple (two or three) stages to orbit configurations. For some or all stages the following landing system types can be employed for partial or full recovery of the launch system.



These are landing systems which employ parachutes and bolstered hard landings, like in a splashdown at sea.


Horizontal (winged)

Single or main stages, as well as fly-back boosters can employ a horizontal landing system.

Examples are:

A variant is an in-air-capture tow back system, advocated by a company called EMBENTION with its FALCon project.[11]

Expendable rockets air launched from aircraft can be considered partially reusable[according to whom?] if the aircraft is thought of as the first stage of the launch vehicle. An example of this configuration is the Northrop Grumman Pegasus.[citation needed]

The Spaceship Company combination of SpaceShipTwo and White Knight Two is a fully reusable suborbital launch vehicle with wings on both the launch aircraft and the rocket-propelled second stage.

Vehicles that land horizontally on a runway require wings and undercarriage. These typically consume about 9-12% of the landing vehicle mass,[citation needed] which either reduces the payload or increases the size of the vehicle. Concepts such as lifting bodies offer some reduction in wing mass,[citation needed] as does the delta wing shape of the Space Shuttle.

Vertical (retrograde)

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.

Retrograde landing typically requires about 10% of the total first stage propellant, reducing the payload that can be carried due to the rocket equation.[12]


With the invention of rocket propulsion in the first half of the twentieth century, space travel became a technical possibility.

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. The first reusable stages did not appear until the advent of the US Space Shuttle in 1981.

20th century

McDonnell Douglas DC-X used vertical takeoff and vertical landing

NASA started the Space Shuttle design process in the late 1960s, with the vision of creating a fully reusable spaceplane using a crewed fly-back booster for the 1970s. This design proved too expensive and complex to develop in time, therefore the design was scaled back to use reusable solid rocket boosters and an expendable external tank.[13][14] The Shuttle proved much more expensive to operate over its 30 year lifetime than an expendable launch system would have been.

In 1986 President Ronald Reagan called for an air-breathing scramjet National Aerospace Plane (NASP)/X-30. The project failed due to severe technical issues and was canceled in 1993.[15]

In the 1990s the McDonnell Douglas Delta Clipper VTOL SSTO proposal progressed to the testing phase. The DC-X prototype demonstrated rapid turnaround time and automatic computer control.

In mid-1990, British research evolved an earlier HOTOL design into the far more promising Skylon design, which remains in development.

From the commercial side, Rocketplane Kistler and Rotary Rocket attempted to build reusable privately developed rockets before going bankrupt.

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.

21st century

Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne used horizontal landing after being launched from a carrier airplane

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.

In 2012, SpaceX started a flight test program with experimental vehicles. These subsequently led to the development of the Falcon 9 reusable rocket launcher.[16]

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.[17][18]

SpaceX achieved the first vertical soft landing of a reusable orbital rocket stage on December 21, 2015, after helping send 11 Orbcomm OG-2 commercial satellites into low Earth orbit.[19]

The first Falcon 9 second flight of a first stage occurred on 30 March 2017.[20] SpaceX now routinely recovers and reuses their first stages, with the intent of reusing fairings as well.[21]

Outside of the U.S., China is researching the Long March 8 as a reusable launch system.[22]

As of May 2020, 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,[23] 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.

Falcon Heavy side boosters landing during 2018 demonstration mission.

List of active reusable launch systems

Company Vehicle Country Type Status Notes
Blue Origin New Shepard US Suborbital Operational Under development.
ISRO RLV-TD India Suborbital Project Successful flight test[24]
Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo US Suborbital Prototype Designed for space tourism.
SpaceX Falcon 9 US Orbital Operational First stage and fairing reusable.
SpaceX Falcon Heavy US Orbital Operational Core, side boosters and fairing reusable.
SpaceX Starship US Orbital Prototype Fully reusable.
I-space Hyperbola-2 China Orbital Prototype Under development

See also


  1. ^ "Reusability". Retrieved November 20, 2019.
  2. ^ Muir, Hazel (15 January 2006). "Pinch of comet dust lands safely on Earth". New Scientist. Retrieved 20 January 2018.
  3. ^ Mission Accomplished For Japan's Asteroid Explorer Hayabusa Archived 16 June 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ "Space Probe, Perhaps with a Chunk of Asteroid, Returns to Earth Sunday". 13 June 2010. Archived from the original on 16 June 2010. Retrieved 13 June 2010.
  5. ^ Clark, Stephen. "Cargo manifest for SpaceX's 11th resupply mission to the space station". Spaceflight Now. Retrieved 3 June 2017.
  6. ^ Sippel, M; Stappert, S; Bussler, L; Dumont, E (September 2017), "Systematic Assessment of Reusable First-Stage Return Options" (PDF), IAC-17-D2.4.4, 68th International Astronautical Congress, Adelaide, Australia.
  7. ^ Reyes, Tim (October 17, 2014). "Balloon launcher Zero2Infinity Sets Its Sights to the Stars". Universe Today. Retrieved 9 July 2015.
  8. ^ Marder, Jenny (3 July 2019). "Inflatable Decelerator Will Hitch a Ride on the JPSS-2 Satellite". NOAA. Retrieved 30 October 2019.
  9. ^ Xinhua Editorial Board (5 May 2020). ""胖五"家族迎新 送新一代载人飞船试验船升空——长征五号B运载火箭首飞三大看点 (LM5 Family in focus: next generation crewed spacecraft and other highlight of the Long March 5B maiden flight)". Xinhua News (in Chinese).
  10. ^ Bill D'Zio (7 May 2020). "Is China's inflatable space tech a $400 Million Cost savings for NASA's SLS?". Retrieved 29 October 2020.
  11. ^ "FALCon". Retrieved 29 October 2020.
  12. ^ "SpaceX on Twitter". Twitter. Retrieved January 7, 2016.
  13. ^ NASA-CR-195281, "Utilization of the external tanks of the space transportation system"
  14. ^ "STS External Tank Station". Archived from the original on 7 April 2015. Retrieved 7 January 2015.
  15. ^ "Copper Canyon". Retrieved 2018-06-08.
  16. ^ Lindsey, Clark (2013-03-28). "SpaceX moving quickly towards fly-back first stage". NewSpace Watch. Retrieved 2013-03-29.
  17. ^ "Blue Origin Makes Historic Reusable Rocket Landing in Epic Test Flight". Calla Cofield. Space.Com. 2015-11-24. Retrieved 2015-11-25.
  18. ^ Berger, Eric. "Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk spar over gravity of Blue Origin rocket landing". Ars Technica. Retrieved 25 November 2015.
  19. ^ "SpaceX on Twitter". Twitter.
  20. ^ "SpaceX successfuly [sic] launches first recycled rocket – video". Reuters. The Guardian. 31 March 2017.
  21. ^
  22. ^ "China to test rocket reusability with planned Long March 8 launcher". 2018-04-30. Retrieved 2020-10-04.
  23. ^ Elon Musk (29 September 2017). Becoming a Multiplanet Species (video). 68th annual meeting of the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia: SpaceX. Retrieved 2017-12-31 – via YouTube.CS1 maint: location (link)
  24. ^ "India's Reusable Launch Vehicle-Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD), Successfully Flight Tested - ISRO". Retrieved 2018-09-24.


  • Heribert Kuczera, et al.: Reusable space transportation systems. Springer, Berlin 2011, ISBN 978-3-540-89180-2.

External links

  • Illustration of a Space Shuttle at takeoff and Orbiter (Visual Dictionary - QAInternational)