The Innovation Of Affordable Spaceflight

We are entering a new era of innovation. With novel technologies like SpaceX’s reusable rockets paving the way, space just might not be as far as it seems.

Spaceflight has proven to be one of the most dangerous and costly ventures mankind has ever devised. Although the danger aspect may never be fully lessened, it seems that the cost factors may soon be dropping drastically thanks to innovative launch technologies.

For nearly 60 years, the spaceflight industry has survived despite following a business model that would quickly put any other company under.

The rockets that are used to bring satellites into space cost millions of dollars to build and launch, and until recently, could only be flown once. Imagine if the airplane industry followed a similar model; some analysts calculate that if an airplane cost $300 M to build it would cost nearly $1.5 M per person if planes were discarded after each flight. Thankfully planes are reusable, but why not the same for rockets? This question got people like Elon Musk of SpaceX thinking and now only a decade later, companies like SpaceX are currently paving the way for cost-effective and reusable launch vehicles.

A Falcon 9 rocket at liftoff from Cape Canaveral.

The Spaceflight Industry As It Is Today

In the modern spaceflight industry, a number of government subsidized corporations as well as commercial corporations compete for market share. The market is currently comprised of two primary sectors: A) satellite launches, which are essential for communications, weather forecasting, navigation, observing land, sea and air, other scientific research, and military reconnaissance; and B) manned/unmanned resupply missions to the International Space Station. However, as of the early 2000s a growing interest in space tourism has seen an additional third market segment develop rapidly, but is not yet servicing customers.

The Major Competitors

Arianespace, Eurockot Launch Services, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, International Launch Services, United Launch Alliance, Orbital ATK, Sea Launch, and SpaceX.

These companies compete in the market based on four main factors: 1) the launch vehicle’s payload lift capabilities; 2) the orbit height they can carry the payload to, namely being Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Geostationary transfer Orbit (GTO) for communication satellites or deep space travel for probes, rovers or scientific satellites; 3) the timeliness of launch opportunities; and 4) the cost of launches.

The Innovation of Re-Usability

To date, there has never been a reusable launch system that was affordable and reliable. The closest system was NASA’s Space Shuttle program which ended up being refurbish-able rather than reusable. The Shuttles were also very expensive, costing nearly $1.6 B per launch, or comparatively $60,000/kg to LEO. This kind of innovation has been referred to as disruptive technology, and its introduction into the market has been quite the shakeup.

The major innovation being introduced into the spaceflight industry is reusable rocket technology.

The reusable rocket technology being developed by SpaceX is revolutionary in that it will allow for the first-stage ascent vehicle to return to the launch pad, or to a drone ship, after payload deployment. It does this by saving a portion of its fuel to perform a burn-back maneuver, which allows it to re-enter the atmosphere. It is then guided by advanced GPS tracking systems and a set of grid fins to its landing site. It then performs a final deceleration burn and deploys four landing legs to land. This technology has now been used successfully six times.

The Falcon 9 landing on a drone ship at sea.

Part of the reason why SpaceX offers such competitive prices is because their production costs are so low. Roughly 80 percent of the components for Falcon 9 — including even the flight computers — are made in-house. This direct manufacturing approach has enabled SpaceX to place themselves in the market as the most affordable contender. SpaceX is already taking up a huge portion of market share, garnering almost 50 launches on its manifest in less than a decade. Analysts forecast that once reusable rocket technology is further developed and becomes much more reliable, there could be reductions in the cost of launching a Falcon 9 of up to 40 percent.

An infographic demonstrating the flight plan of a reusable SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

To The Moon, Mars, And Beyond

This drastic and rapid change in pace set by SpaceX has forced competitors in the market to re-analyze their business models and review their current launch vehicle options. SpaceX is looking to place themselves at the top, and with affordability through re-usability in mind, it appears as if that goal is within sight. Arianespace and ULA have already mentioned that they will be developing reusable launch technologies; however, by the time they get around to it, who knows where SpaceX will be. I’m betting on Mars.

-J

And, no, I’m not an alien … but I used to be one.” — Elon Musk

References

  1. http://www.businessinsider.com/how-reusable-rocket-tech-will-revolutionize-spaceflight
  2. http://waitbutwhy.com/2015/08/how-and-why-spacex-will-colonize-mars.html/4
  3. http://www.airspacemag.com/space/is-spacex-changing-the-rocket-equation-132285884/?page=1
  4. http://advanced-television.com/2016/01/20/launch-discounts-likely-from-spacex/
  5. http://www.vox.com/cards/private-space-flight/private-spaceflight- history-NASA
  6. http://www.space.com/12166-space-shuttle-program-cost-promises-209-billion.html
  7. http://spacenews.com/evolution-of-a-plan-ula-execs-spell-out-logic-behind-vulcan-design-choices/
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