[reading time: five minutes]
Could you imagine trashing your car every time you go to work and buy a new one for each commute?
Well good news for you: you are a perfectly rational human being and I can tell that you with confidence that you don’t work in the space exploration industry.
Why you might ask? Because making disposable (and costly) machines has been the best practice of orbital payload delivery (leaving out the sad parenthesis of the Space Shuttle – next time maybe).
What SpaceX accomplished two days ago is instead to successfully re-fly (and re-land) an already used orbital class rocket.
But the web has been flooded and saturated with the hows and they whys of this feat, and it will be of little use for me to tell you what has been told already billions of times. (Here’s a good list of articles in case you haven’t been on the zero-g side of the news . The Verge – SpaceX makes aerospace history , National Geographic – SpaceX makes history )
What I’m here to tell you today is why it made NO DAMN SENSE for incumbents to develop reusable orbital payload delivery systems (fancy mouthful for recyclable rockets).
1.Making Reusable rockets is hard.
Well this shouldn’t come as a surprise. The companies involved in military and private launches (Boeing, Lockheed, Orbital, to name a few), had indeed thought of this business model: it simply wasn’t worth it. The investment and the risk that would have gone into this would have been simply to high to bear, and shareholders were much more content with easy but steady returns rather than investing in a completely new, untested, potentially not working technology.
Then it shouldn’t be a surprise if the technology involved in space exploration has changed little in 40 years. Aerospace giants are surely not known for fast innovation.
For a comparison here’s the look of a Soyuz T-3 from late ’70s and one from our days. See the wonders that over 40 years of engineering progress and design can do.
Can’t see many difference right? Because there are almost none.
2. Customers may not want used rockets for their precious missions.
You know, satellites can have pretty insane price tags. In the order of magnitude of tens of millions of dollars.
Even if 10 times cheaper, recycled rockets wouldn’t be appealing to those risk-averse customers whose only interest is to get the payload in orbit, SAFELY.
This is where our parallelism between cars and rockets stop. Cars aren’t subject to the same decree of stress that a rocket experiences while fighting against the gravitational pull. This leads us to the next point:
3. Reusable rockets simply weren’t thought to be possible.
Here’s the real issue. There were many people in the space industry who doubted that reusable rockets would work, in large part because of the stress the machines and metal go through during launch. Here’s why Gov’t based institutions wouldn’t even consider the reused spacecraft for their launches.
This is probably the main reasons for which the aerospace giants didn’t pursue this technology: according to them it wasn’t simply possible, and “Musk (i.e. SpaceX CEO) was flat-out wasting his time, with engineering calculations already proving that reusable rockets were a fool’s errand”(Vance, 2015).
SpaceX isn’t making history just because of the incredible feat it has accomplished.
SpaceX is making history because, in typical “Muskian” fashion, they were told that it just wouldn’t be possible.
And they proved everybody wrong.
Get the latest space updates every Sunday here on International Space Sunday, or follow me on twitter @carlostoppani.
Do you feel like machines are going to enslave us all in the near future? Then head over my other section, Tech Stuff and learn more about your future employer.