The first reusable vehicle to reach orbit was the NASA developed Space Shuttle. It was intended to reduce launch costs below those of expendable launch systems, but ended up more expensive. The last Shuttle was retired in 2011.
Since 2008, SpaceX's achievements have been exceptional. Despite delays, counter-time and failures, the company of Elon Musk continues on its momentum. They got a foothold as a private company in the rocket launcher market. They recovered the first floor of a launcher. They recovered multiple floors at one time. they recovered the launcher's cap.
The research & development costs of reusable vehicle are expected to be higher, because making a vehicle reusable implies making it robust enough to survive more than one use, which also adds to the testing required. Increasing robustness is most easily done by adding weight, but this reduces performance and puts further pressure on R&D.
Therefore the next step for SpaceX will be to validate once and for all its business model. For this, SpaceX will have to successfully reduce the cost and time to reuse the first floor of the Falcon 9. The Space Shuttle had proved extremely expensive from this point of view. Let's not forget that Falcon 9 is only partially reusable: the second floor, at a non-negligible cost is lost after use. Solutions are being studied to overcome this problem.
But these achievements are not very much compared to what announced Elon Musk: the creation of the BFR, a huge launcher. This monster will weigh more than 4000t and will reach 106m in height.
Blue Origin is positioned as the most serious competitor of SpaceX. The firm has proven its ability to reuse a launcher with New Shepard. This rocket has recoverable first and second stages but is still in development and is only capable of suborbital flights. The first commercial flight, carrying tourists on board, will take place at the end of 2018!
They are currently developing "New Glenn", another launcher that will be used to reach Earth's orbit. The first flight is planned for 2020. With a diameter smaller than BFR (7m against 11m), it remains no less impressive (95m, against 55m for Ariane 5).
French, Japanese and German
SpaceX is a serious contender for Arianespace, for the Japanese and the Germans. CNES, JAXA, and DLR are therefore working together to study the reusable track. These developments are in parallel with Ariane 6 and in preparation for Ariane Next. This launcher should be operational by 2030.
By then, two experimental launchers will be developed. Callisto will be a small launcher (11m and 3.6t) whose main objective will be to validate the technologies of recovery and reuse in real conditions. It will carry a large number of sensors to record the maximum amount of data. The first flight is scheduled for 2020. A second experimental launcher will be developed, called Themis. Its dimensions will be much larger, and its design will be close to Ariane Next, the operational launcher. Themis will use the Prometheus engine for propulsion and return.
The final goal is to develop the first stage of Ariane Next for a first flight in 2030. Despite its delay, Europe remains in an interesting position: if the reuse is not economically viable, it will always have Ariane 6. If the economic model materializes, Arianespace will be able to count on an operational launcher within a reasonable time.
Long March 8 by China
It is clear that the Chinese have an incredible ability to adapt and invest: On April 30, the Chinese Academy of Launchers announced a launch of LM-8 for 2020!
LM-8 has a design that was originally intended for a conventional launcher. Finally, this launcher can take off and be recovered in a pattern similar to that of SpaceX. For the takeoff phase, the launcher will use, in addition to the main stage, two boosters that will be recovered by parachute.
China's goal is to test the economic model of reuse. China currently offers some of the lowest launch costs already, using conventional launchers.
India is one of the emerging nations in space, which is the only country with a space ministry. In 2016, they used for the first time a shuttle technology demonstrator, the RLV-TD. The goal of ISRO is now to have a 100% reusable system. For this purpose, it is developing the Two Stage To Orbit (TSTO) project, with a capacity of 10t in LEO. The first floor would be flown horizontally, while the second floor would be de-orbited and parachuted.
Russia is a nation very invested in space, for historical reasons. The fall of the USSR and the economic crisis of the 1990s, however, dealt a serious blow to Russian capabilities with lack of investment, cancellation of programs, brain drain, failed missions, etc.
With the resumption of economic activity and Vladimir Putin's policy of greatness, it is important that Russia remains a leading nation in the space field, and they cannot miss the race for reuse.
A first proposal could be presented to Roscosmos in early July for the development of a launcher with a reusable first stage. All tracks are currently under study.
Credits: photos from SpaceX, Blue Origin, CNES, CCTV and ISRO