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The Race for Reusable Rocket Success

written by: •edited by: Carly Stockwell•updated: 7/15/2016

Fabric grocery bags. Stainless steel water bottles. Insulated lunch bags. Rechargeable batteries. Plastic plates. Cloth diapers.When will we have reusable materials for space travel?

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    Consumers have lots of choices when it comes to substituting reusable products for disposables. There’s less waste, and reprocessing often saves money. But how about reusable rockets for space exploration? It may seem like a big leap, but a few companies see this as the future of galactic travel. They’re working on it. Hard.

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    Looking in the Rearview Mirror

    For a long time, space travel was, well, wasteful. (That’s not a criticism — space organizations were charting new territory.) NASA sent rockets up, they did their jobs and they were never seen again. Then came the space shuttle, the first orbital spacecraft that could return to earth and be reused.

    Unfortunately, the space shuttle wasn’t a money-saving method of transportation. Getting it ready for the next trip was expensive, partly due to safety issues. For example, each of its ceramic heat tiles had to be individually inspected. As early as 1969, NASA’s chief of manned spaceflight suggested $25 per pound as a target for sending the shuttle into space. The reality turned out to be 1,000 times that.

    Reusable wasn’t cheap — yet. To some individuals, space travel was the future, and they turned their focus toward reusing rockets.

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    It’s All About the Bucks

    One major reason to reuse rockets is to lower the cost of space travel. That’s the goal of Elon Musk’s SpaceX. This company is putting the first stage of its rocket boosters back into play. And it’s no wonder! That section contains fuel tanks, guidance systems and nine engines. Not having to replace those is a huge step. The company estimates this will save customers 30 percent on subsequent flights.

    Not all aspects of reusable rockets save money, though. The extra fuel needed to return to earth takes the place of additional customer cargo. Recovery, transportation, inspection and refueling costs add up. Over time, though, reprocessing should save money. This is crucial for SpaceX, which seeks to expand its client base beyond NASA, the International Space Station and a few private satellite companies.

    In the first half of 2016 alone, SpaceX launched half a dozen rockets. During the sixth mission, the spacecraft successfully released two satellites. However, recovery of the first stage was a no-go. The company expects 2016 to be a busy year, because they plan to surpass their biggest U.S. rival, United Launch Alliance.

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    Filling Up Space

    Another private company, Blue Origin, isn’t focusing on attracting commercial clients. It plans to lead the space tourism industry. Though its spacecraft have carried research payloads, the company’s primary goal is to sell tickets to ordinary people interested in space travel. Want to experience weightlessness? Interested in seeing earth from above? Blue Origin is betting you’re not alone.

    But traveling with people is different than carting cargo. Satellites don’t have to breath! Traditionally, astronauts used compressed air to handle this need by regulating the pressurized tanks of liquid oxygen and nitrogen onboard. It requires adjustments for space and weight, and it mirrors the goal of reusable parts. If recovered, air compressors can last for years.

    As of June 2016, Blue Origin had launched and recovered four reusable rockets. So far, the flights have been uncrewed, but the capsules that are intended for humans have returned safely under parachutes. The booster returns separately, powered by its launch engine. How much would you pay for a trip to space? Don’t worry. You still have time to save. Blue Origin isn’t releasing ticket prices yet.

    Between saving money and sending tourists into space, reusing rockets might ultimately lower the price for the entire space travel industry. Who do you think will win the race? Comment in the section below!

    About the Author: Megan Nichols loves discussing innovations in technology and science. Her favorite topics are astronomy, the environment, and psychology. If you are interesting in learning about other astronomical wonders, join the discussion on her blog, or follow her on twitter.