A mission to supply the International Space Station next week could change space-flight as we know it—by successfully returning a used rocket booster to Earth.
SpaceX’s Jan. 6 launch will send a remotely piloted space capsule to the ISS with food, experiments, and two tiny, Earth-observing satellites called cubesats. But the arguably bigger news is that the company, led by CEO and chief rocket designer Elon Musk, will attempt to fly the rocket that carries it into orbit back to earth and land it on a floating platform akin to an oil rig.[More]
The ability to reuse much of a rocket will change everything. For SpaceX, a reusable first stage, coupled with their reusable Dragon spacecraft, would change the economics fo getting to low Earth orbit (LEO).
The sunk costs of a rocket can be amortized – that is spread over multiple flights. Say it costs $50 million to send a rocket to LEO. Because most of the cost is in the rocket.
Let’s do some simple calculations.
Do it twice and instead of costing $100 million, the only added costs would be for fuel (a couple of hundred thousand) and refurbishing, say $2 million. So 2 flights for $52 million or about half the cost.
Do it 10 times and the average cost drops almost 10-fold.
Currently, the SpaceX Falcon 9 can get a pound into space for $2000. The larger Falcon Heavy can half that – $1000 a pound (10-fold lower than the Shuttle could).
Reuse the rocket 10 times and the price drops to $100 a pound. Musk hopes to reuse the rocket perhaps 100 times. If successful, that drops the cost to about $10 a pound.
Getting a person into space could cost less than a roundtrip cross country first class airplane ticket.
That changes everything.Now reality means that things will not scale perfectly. Higher flight rates means faster turnaround, etc.
Still a long way away from all this but if it could happen, it will be a new world.