Reusable Launch & Space Transport
Information Part 1 - General Info, US Projects,
This animation shows how the three components of the
reusable SpaceX Falcon 9 system -
the first and second stages of the rocket and the Dragon
crew capsule -
will return back to the launch site with powered vertical
A fully reusable launch system is the key to providing
the low cost access to Space. Low cost access is in
turn the key to extensive human exploration and settlement
of the solar system.
The Space Shuttle succeeded technically as a partially
reusable launcher but failed miserably economically.
It required several thousand support personal and 2
months or more to rebuild a Shuttle for its next launch.
Shuttle launch costs are roughly $20,000/kg, which is
actually higher than most expendable launchers.
During the 1990s a number of RLV (Reusable Launch Vehicle)
startup companies appeared due to the promise of a lucrative
market for launching spacecraft for the low earth orbit
communications constellations that were then in development.
Unfortunately, the failures of Iridium, Globalstar,
and the other constellations pulled the rug out from
under these space transport companes and several disappeared
or went into long-term limbo.
The failures of several NASA projects, such as the
also discouraged government investment in RLV technology.
Bad design and poor management had more to do with these
failure than technical challenges but they nevertheless
convinced many in NASA and elsewhere that RLV technology
was not at hand.
Currently (circa 2013), the most intense RLV development
activity is taking place in the suborbital
spaceflight area. These vehicles are primarily intended
for space tourism but will also take over many of the
scientific applications carried out by sounding rockets.
has begun work on a "fully and rapidly" reusable
Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon crew module system. They
have been flying their Grasshopper
prototype reusable first stage booster at their test
site in McGregor, Texas. They also plan to begin to
attempt powered controlled returns of their first stage
booster to the sea surface after launches of the Falcon
9 v1.1. Once that is perfected, they will attempt to
return the booster to the pad.
Here is a compilation of the first 6 Grasshopper flights
plus clips of Elon Musk discussing the challenges and
advantages of "fully and rapidly reusable"
Blue Origin is also developing a reusable booster for
their orbital crew module, though initially it will
fly on the expendable Atlas V.
Thsi page provides resources about such RLV projects
& technology present, past and future. The T
sign indicates that a project has an entry in the RLV
Also, included are in-space vehicles, which
can be launched in different ways. For example, such
a vehicle might be released in space from a shuttle
or launched on top of an expendable. They might operate
in space indefinitely or, in other cases, return to
earth to be used again for crew transport.
Many people complain that the term reusable launch
vehicle is clumsy and archaic. We don't, after
all, call airliners reusable takeoff vehicles!
The RLV term helps to perpetuate the myth that every
flight of a rocket powered vehicle is a lucky shot
and that such craft will never attain the high reliability
and lost cost operations of airliners.
However, in the next few years we will see robust
and reliable rocket powered suborbital vehicles begin
making daily flights, even multiple flights in a day.
It will then seem rather silly to talk about countdowns
and launches. They will simply takeoff when they are
ready, just like any other flying vehicle.
There is not been put forward a generally accepted
substitute term. The SpaceShipOne
success argued for spaceship but it still isn't
generally accepted. I'm gradually replacing the RLV
terminology here with space transport. However,
some other term, such as spaceliner, rocketship, etc
, may eventually become the more popular choice.
Flight Mechanics of Manned Sub-Orbital Reusable
Launch Vehicles with Recommendations for Launch
and Recovery Marti Sarigul-Klijn, Ph.D. and
Nesrin Sarigul-Klijn*, Ph.D. Mechanical &
Aeronautical Engineering Dept., Univ. of Calif.,
paper 2003-0909 (pdf, 910kb)
LeBouthillier has been doing some conceptual
design studies of very small, reusable orbital
launch vehicles that an amateur group or small
company might build. These papers focus on the
design of a first stage for such a system:
CD004 (pdf) - "a conceptual design for
a [VTHL] reusable rocket vehicle able to lift
152 lbs with a total delta velocity of 10000
feet per second vertically (not taking gravity
and aerodynamic losses into account)".
CD005 (pdf) - "an examination of a Vertical
Takeoff Vertical Landing (VTVL) rocket design
for a reusable rocket vehicle able to lift
two upper stages weighing a total of 163 lbs
on a trajectory suitable for a 115 mile altitude
orbit. The expected payload delivery to orbit
is about 5 pounds".
NASA has two commercial launch services programs.
One (COTS/CRS) is for delivering cargo to the
ISS and the other (CCDev/CCP) for delivering crews.
Orbital Sciences and SpaceX have the contracts
for cargo.SpaceX and several other
COTS - NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation
Services demonstration program involves contracting
with commercial space transport firms to deliver
a given amount of cargo to the International Space
Station each year. Eventually this would also
include delivery and return of crew members to
and from the ISS as well.
NASA does not specify the design of the launch
systems. The agency examines the proposed system
to insure that it is a reasonable design and is
compatible with the ISS operations.
document - Johnson Space Center contains
the Space Act agreements between NASA and
Kistler (page 1) and between NASA and
(page 54). It includes the terms of the contracts
(e.g. intellectual property rights), summaries
of the proposals, and a list of the milestones
for each company and how much each will be
paid as it achieves each milestone.
In May 2006 the number of companies
competing for the contract was reduced to
six, none of which included the large mainstream
aerospace firms. On August 18th, 2006, NASA announced
that it would award two contracts to Rocketplane-Kistler
They will receive $207M and $278M contigent upon
meeting a series of milestones and raising significant
funding from private sources.
SpaceX met its milestones but RpK failed to raise
sufficient outside capital and its agreement was
canceled in 2007.
Phase 1.5 - second round using $174M
that became available when Rocketplane Kistler's
contract was canceled.
Feb.19.08 - NASA announced that Orbital
Sciences had won the competition:
CRS - Commercial ISS Resupply Services
On Dec.23, 2008, NASA announced that SpaceX and
Orbital Sciences had won contracts to supply cargo
to the ISS. SpaceX will get a minimum of $1.6B
for 12 flights between 2010 and 2015. Orbital
will get $1.9B for 16 flights.
"F9/Dragon can take 3500 kg of useful
payload to Station and the cost is $110M in
2009 dollars, so ~$31,400/kg [plus adjusting
for inflation.] The reason it is even that
high is that we have to maintain significant
(for us, peanuts by big contractor standards)
overhead despite having only one or two missions
in some years."
America's Space Prize - this $50M prize was
for a privately developed orbital vehicle that could
put a crew of 5 in orbit by 2010 was offered by Bigelow
Aerospace in 2004. However, it was subsequently withdrawn
when no organization registered.
Lunar Lander Analog
Challenge - "build a vertical take-off/vertical
landing suborbital vehicle capable of reaching
a speed consistent with the energies required
to land and launch from the moon. This prize is
intended to stimulate development of technologies
and capabilities for lunar and suborbital space
This later became the Northrop-Grumman Lunar Lander
Challenge. The top prizes were won by Armadillo
Aerospace and Masten Space Systems.
The purpose of RSVIPP is to spur competition
and entrepreneurial investment in designing a reusable
space vehicle. The competition will run from January
1, 2009 to January 1, 2014 and offer $40 million
to the company or individuals providing the most
significant advancement toward designing and building
a reusable space vehicle.
rules (pdf) require that the vehicle carry
seven people to an altitude of 185 km twice within
a two week period.
The link - www.v-prize.com - died. The site
described an effort to create a suborbital space
point-to-point competition. A $10M-$25M prize
will be given to first team to fly a vehicle from
Virginia's commercial spaceport to England in
less than hour.
Study of Air Launch Methods for RLVs (PDF 542kb)
presented at a recent AIAA conference by Marti Sarigul-Klijn
and Nesrin Sarigul-Klijn. of University of California,
that the various proposed air launched RLVs are not
feasible with current technology. They present their
own partially reusable SwiftLaunch design as a reasonable
short term alternative.
The case for smaller launch vehicles in human
space exploration by Grant Bonin, The Space Review
Shuttle Costs - R. Pielke Jr., - Feb.10.05
- Roger Pielke Jr. calculates the average cost
of a Shuttle flight, taking into account the cumulative
inflation corrected cost for the life of the program
since 1971, to be in the $1B-$1.3B range.
Andrews Space & Technology "Alchemist"
concept involves accumulating liquid oxygen during
an initial phase while flying at low altitude
and then using the LOX with a rocket engine for
a second phase boost to orbit.
Aerospaceplane - 2-stage RLV system in which
the first stage uses LOX collected from the atmospher
with the ACES
For their NASA Commercial Crew project, they
plan to develop first a reusable Space Vehicle
that flies atop an expendable like the Atlas V.
In parallel they are developing the Reusable Booster
System (RBS) that will carry the SV to orbit.
A commercial manned spacecraft system based
on the Soviet
TKS spacecraft, which includes the reusable
capsule and a conical
tower above it that includes parachutes, attitude
control propulsion, etc. The three person capsule
connects to a service module and can be accessed
via a hatch through the heat shield. It could
be launched on different boosters.
Rocketplane - orbital project moved to
RLV History. The company changed its name to Rocketplane
Ltd. and pursued a suborbital vehicle XP. Later it
bought Kistler and won a NASA COTS contract to build
the K-1. This was lost when they could not raise sufficient
private investment. The firm eventually closed in
A collaboration with the Canadian Arrow team
to build upon the Canadian
Arrow suborbital booster and the NASA Silver
Dart design to develop an orbital system. The
Silver Dart could also server as a suborbital
space tourist vehicle. The team competed for the
NASA COTS demonstration contract but failed to
obtain a contract. They intended to compete in
the second round.
- K-1 two-stage fully reusable launcher - construction
never finished due to lack of funding.
Kistler Aerospace became part of Rocketplane
after majority ownership was bought in early 2006.
RpK then won a NASA COTS contract but was later
removed after failing to meet private fundraising
On Sept. 28, 2006 it was announced that Jim
Benson would spinoff Benson
Space Company from SpaceDev to develop the
Dream Chaser as a suborbital vehicle. See entry
in suborbital projects below. After that they
would develop an orbital version. Jim Benson passed
away in 2008 and later in 2009 Sierra Nevada Corp.
bought SpaceDev but kept it as a separate subsidiary.
Spacedev continued to work on the Dream Chaser
and in 2010 and 2011 and won NASA Commercial Crew
Development grants to expand its design efforts
on the project.
The initial goal of SpaceX was for the first
stage of the Falcon I and both stages of Falcon
9 to be reusable after recovery from the ocean.
However, reusability for the F1 first stage turned
out to require too much mass for the parachutes,
TPS, etc to be practical. Then in the first F9
flights the first stage broke up in the atmosphere
and this appeared difficult to overcome.
So the goal changed to creating a fully reusable
version of the F9 and Dragon in which the two
stages and the crew module all flew back to the
launch facility and did power landings. The Dragon
was already intended to be reusable via a pusher
style launch escape system that could also provide
for powered landings.
Paul Allen supported air-launch system in collaboration
with Scaled Composites, Dynetics and SpaceX. Worlds
largest aircraft will carry a scaled down version
of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to 30000 feet for
launch of 13000lb payloads to orbit, including
These companies/projects focus on sub-orbital launchers
for commercial markets. Some of the teams participated
in the X
PRIZE, which was was won by the Scaled Composites
SpaceShipOne. We indicate here which of the projects
were also X-PRIZE participants.
In 2006 this Rumanian organization switched
from their prioities from the Orizont
design to the balloon launched Stabilo,
which has an unusual design with the crew compartment
at the low end and the thruster nozzles at top.
Crafters - "dual propulsion – jet and hybrid
rocket powered trainers will create the world’s first
opportunity for civilian pilots to get stick-n-rudder
training in high-performance rocket powered aircraft
and suborbital capable spaceplanes."
- development of a modernized Gemini capsule that
could fly on different launchers such as the SpaceX
This was a spinoff from the Americans
in Orbit - 50 Years project, which unsuccessfully
sought to put a modernized Mercury capsule into
orbit in 2011 to commemorate 50th anniversary
of John Glenn's flight.
- XCOR announced on March 26, 2008 that they
would begin development of the Lynx Mark I vehicle,
which will take a pilot and a passenger to 61
km starting in 2010. Mark II version will go
2009 - Reports, photos, videos, etc for the
rules allowed for individual teams to
arrange for carrying out their flights at
a time and place of their choosing between
July 1 - Oct.31, 2009. Best performance that
satisfies all requirements will win. Purses
available for second place Level 1 ($150k),
and both first ($1000k) and second place ($500k)
Masten Space Systems won the Level I runner-up
prize and the Level II top prize.
Armadillo Aerospace won the Level II runner-up
10 teams initially registered but only Armadillo
Aerospace and TrueZer0 brought vehicles to
the event, which was held at the Las Cruces,
NM airport over Oct.24-25. Armadillo won Level
I with the Mod vehicle. They attempted Level
II with the Pixel vehicle but a systematic
problem with fuel valves caused a nozzle failure.
The TrueZer0 group's vehicle failed shortly
after reaching its hover altitude.
Neptune RLV - Interorbital small startup company
whose "goal is to develop a low-cost commercial
manned space launch capability." The company
is currently developing "a low-cost sounding
rocket, the Tachyon, capable of reaching orbital altitude".
- 2nd stage of the Neptune system that can operate
alone as a sub-orbital vehicle
Heavy lift vehicle, initially called the CaLV
(Cargo Lift Vehicle). 130 mT to LEO. Primary payload
is the LSAM (Lunar Surface Access Module) along
with the EDS (Earth Departure Stage) that powers
the trip to the Moon after the Orion capsule docks
with the LSAM.
NASA transferred the X-37 projec to the Air
Force in 2004. The Air Force decided in 2006 to
continue the X-37 spaceplane program and develop
the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) demonstrator
for a launch in 2008. The launch slipped and is
now set for April 2010. The reusable vehicle will
be placed in orbit by a Lockheed Martin Atlas
5 rocket. Boeing is the lead contractor.
- long term program to develop a hypersonic launch
SLV - begins with development of a
low cost quick responce conventional launcher
Hybrid Launch Vehicle Study and Analysis
program - (formerly ARES Affordable
Responsive Spacelift) - program to develop a 2-stage
system with a reusable first stage. The goal is
to launch satellites in the 2300-6800 kg range
to LEO for one-third to one-sixth the price of
current launchers. The vehicle could launch with
just two days notice. Prototype by 2010. Operational
Space Based Reusable Vehicles
This section focuses on unmanned vehicles intended
for in space applications such as satellite
servicing, space station cargo delivery & pickup,
etc. In most projects, the goal is to develop vehicles
that either carry out multiple missions while in space
and/or can return to earth and be re-flown many times,
on different kinds of launch vehicles.
Space Operations Vehicle
(SOV) - Air Force research program since late
1990's to develop an unmanned reusable vehicle
to launch military payloads. It should have fast
response, e.g. 1 day preparation for launch.
The Rocket Company
account of the challenges faced by a group of seven investors and their
engineering team in developing a low-cost, reusable, Earth-to-orbit launch
vehicle. Forward by Peter Diamandis