Ep. 652: The Rocket Race Toward Reusability

Last week we talked about how single-use rocketry has changed over time, and the role it still plays in launching payloads into orbit and beyond. Today, we’ll address the stainless steel elephant in the room and talk about the shift to reusability.

Download MP3 | Show Notes | Transcript

Show Notes

VIDEO: Astronomy Cast Episode 651: Artemis & The Decline of Single Use Rockets

Gemini: Bridge to the Moon (NASA)

The Apollo Missions (NASA)

Biography of Wernher Von Braun (NASA)

Neutron (Rocket Lab)

VIDEO: Neutron Rocket | Development Update (Rocket Lab)

Starship (SpaceX)

Magnetospheres (NASA)

Four Things We’ve Learned About NASA’s Planned Base Camp on the Moon (Smithsonian Magazine)


Space Shuttle Era (NASA)

Solid Rocket Boosters (NASA)

Falcon 9 (SpaceX)

New Shepard (Blue Origin)

Space Shuttle design process (Wikipedia)

The Soviet Buran Shuttle: One Flight, Long History (National Air and Space Museum)

VIDEO: Energia II (Uragan) Fully Reusable Soviet Rocket Concept (Hazegrayart)

Roton (astronautix)

Delta Clipper (Astronautix)

Blue Origin


The Martian Chronicles (Simon and Schuster)

Space Launch System (NASA)

New Glenn (Blue Origin)

VIDEO: Starlink Mission, Sept. 4, 2022 (SpaceX)


Rocket Lab

Electron (Rocket Lab)

Rocket Lab Successfully Deploys 34 Satellites and Catches Rocket Booster Returning from Space with Helicopter (Rocket Lab)

Rocket Lab Successfully Completes First Test Fire of Reused Rutherford Engine (Rocket Lab)

Rocket Lab’s New Neutron Rocket Is Inspired by Hungry Hungry Hippos (Interesting Engineering)



United Launch Alliance

Vulcan (ULA)

VIDEO: Tory Bruno: United Launch Alliance (Fraser Cain)

China launches secretive reusable test spacecraft (SpaceNews)

Dream Chaser® Spaceplane | Private Space Travel for All (Sierra Space)

VIDEO: Starship | SN15 | High-Altitude Flight Test (SpaceX)

NASA Picks SpaceX to Land Next Americans on Moon (NASA)

For All Mankind (Apple TV+)

SpaceX Big Falcon Ship docked to Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway by Mack Crawford (HumanMars.net)


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Transcriptions provided by GMR Transcription Services

Fraser: Astronomy Cast episode 652, the rocket race towards reusability. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, your weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos. We help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. I’ve been a space and astronomy journalist for over 20 years. With me as always is Dr. Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of Cosmo Quest. Hey Pamela, how you doing? 

Dr. Gay: I am doing well. This was a truly delightful show to prep for, and I love the future we’re approaching. 

Fraser: Right, well last week we were, I was extremely overwhelmingly ambivalent. This week I am more encouraging. I’m shifting to the positive side of ambivalence. All right, well last week we talked about how single-use rocketry has changed over time and the roll it still plays in launching payloads into orbit and beyond. Today, we’ll address the stainless-steel elephant in the room and talk about the shift to reusability. All right, so again, last week we talked about single-use rockets and their declining role, but still important role in sending payloads into space, especially beyond low-earth orbit. 

But the competition to single-use rocket, the widely bizarre idea of using things multiple times is catching up quick or has utterly surpassed or is casting a long shadow over single-use rocketry. So, what – what’s the history? I mean, we all know the idea, what is the history or reusing a rocket and why hasn’t this been done until now?

Dr. Gay: That I don’t know. So, the question that plagued my while prepping this show, and then I will answer your question. The question that plagued me while prepping for this show is why they didn’t try and make the early capsules reusable. Because like Gemini, Apollo, they needed the replace the heat shield clearly, but there was a whole lot of electronics that it felt like they should be able to reuse those capsules. I’m sure there was good reason, I just don’t know what those reasons were. And this is one of those things that I now want the answer to. 

Fraser: My guess, sorry, is that the reason is because something could have broken, and you don’t know what it is. 

Dr. Gay: Right. 

Fraser: Right, that space flight is extreme. It is not driving a car. It is driving a car at 28,000 kilometers per hour. It is not turning on the brakes for your car to slow yourself down. It is passing through the atmosphere of the earth and the enormous heat and pressure and temperature, and so it’s just like you put all the stuff in and it works new. Do you really wanna trust that some part of it isn’t you know, didn’t break, didn’t snap, didn’t jiggle, didn’t you know. And so, the amount of time it would take to recertify every single piece of the entire capsule, is probably the amount it would cost to build a new one. 

Dr. Gay: And it is indeed that, what does it take and how long does it take to build a new one versus test the old one. That is why so much stuff is still completely disposable when they don’t have high cadence and when they don’t take a lot of time to make. But it was actually Wernher von Braun who was one of the first people to start thinking about what is necessary to do reusable, and there were some neat ideas to build things that look shockingly like the currently planned Neutron, the almost in production Starship, where it was this flattened airplane-ish design that he was hoping to be able to launch and then bring back. 

And he was thinking parachutes, but it goes all the way back to, well our founding father of rocketry. 

Fraser: Every – I had a really interesting realization in the last couple of weeks. Every interesting idea that people are thinking of right now in terms of reusable rocketry, magnetospheres, bases on the moon, lunar rovers, everything, is in a technical paper written in the 1960s by some NASA engineers. 

Dr. Gay: Yes. 

Fraser: That all of these ideas have been thought of back in the 60s, it’s just that we didn’t necessarily either have the technology or the will to carry these things out. It’s incredible that, you know, you show me a new idea and I will show you a paper from the 1960s that someone had already described that idea in beautiful detail. But the space shuttle, I think, was the first proper attempt to create a fully reusable two-stage rocket system. 

Dr. Gay: Yes. And not only that, but they were looking to reuse both the first and sort of, kind of second stage. I don’t know what you wanna call the space shuttle itself. 

Fraser: The orbiter. 

Dr. Gay: Well, but in terms of stages. Reusing the second stage is something that we’re still largely not doing, where the first stage originally the SRBs for the space shuttle, they were scooping them out of the ocean and then the shuttle was coming back for a landing. And it was the external tank that was getting thrown away. And today, we are back to the capsule at the top is reused. That second stage is thrown away. But for the Falcon 9, that first stage comes back. For the New Shephard there isn’t really a second stage. It’s that first stage and then the capsule. And so, we’re starting to get there, but there’s still pieces we’re missing. 

Fraser: I mean, again, if you go back and look at those drawings of the space shuttle from the 1960s, it is – it looks kind of like the space shuttle. 

Dr. Gay: Yeah. 

Fraser: Except the main – like the main fuel stage has wings too. 

Dr. Gay: Yes, they were originally planning to bring it back as well.  

Fraser: Right, and so, you would have the main fuel tank, essentially the booster and it would have wings. And then you would have the orbiter sitting on top, and it would have wings. And then the whole stack would take off. And then the booster would detach from the orbiter, and it would glide back and land at Kennedy Space Center. And then the orbiter would fly to space, complete its mission, and then it would fly back. And at some point along the journey, they abandoned the idea and shifted to a partial reuse. 

And you know, maybe it wasn’t ever even feasible, or maybe it was a technology issue, or maybe it was just because they threw too many requirements at the capability of the shuttle. Which a lot of people complain about that. But there was a time when the space shuttle would have been fully reusable. It was essentially Starship designed in the 1960s. So again, back to what I said that every good idea has already been thought of by engineers in the 1960s. But that didn’t happen. 

Dr. Gay: It’s so easy to think that it was a technological issue, but then I look at the fact that they got one flight out of Buran and were able to make it land on its own. And so, at least the Russians once got it to work. So, I mean, it probably weighed a lot. 

Fraser: Well and there’s an animation by Hazegrayart, who is just like one of my favorite YouTube channels, and he posted this rendition of a Russian energy rocket where the boosters would all sprout little wings and all return to the landing pad, or you know they would land like aircraft. And so, this idea of reusable rocketry. But I think we didn’t really see some first initial steps until the 1990s. The Roton I would say. It was like the Roton, and what was that first reusable rocket? Do you know what I’m talking about? 

Dr. Gay: No, and this is what I love about working with you is because you’ve been a journalist for 20 years and you can remember some of the stuff that I was still in school while you were being a reporter. 

Fraser: Yeah. Someone I’m sure is gonna post in the chat. Let me just get the name of it. Uh, there was like this – it did like a launch and landing. I forget the name. Come on, come on. Where is it. Where is it. Aww, I’ve lost it. The Delta Clipper? Nope, the Delta Clipper is the X37. The DCX I guess. So, in the 90s a couple of companies worked on rockets that look very much like the Blue Origins New Shephard. 

Dr. Gay: Yes. 

Fraser: It would blast off, fly to a certain height, and then use up you know a propulsive landing to set foot gently on the landing pad, on the launch pad again. And so, they were able to demonstrate this capability, but the rotary rocket? Ah, which one was it? Yeah, all right, anyway. Yeah, Delta Clipper I’m gonna say was the first one. 

Dr. Gay: The first modern rocket to really do it was actually that New Shepherd, and it’s one of those wonderful moments where it wasn’t actually SpaceX that demonstrated you can land your first stage back just like those 1950s illustrations demonstrated. 

Fraser: Yeah. 

Dr. Gay: Just like reading in Martian Chronicles, it was Bezos who did it first. It was just Musk who did it a little bit later and then commercialized it and made it work over and over and over again. So, in this case the slightly less fast rabbit, because neither of them is a turtle, was the one that really won the race. 

Fraser: So, what do you think was the big technological advance that was required to shift into this realm of reusable booster rockets like the Falcon 9 from SpaceX? 

Dr. Gay: Fast enough processors to be able to handle the gimbling fins and engines necessary to keep that rocket upright and on target and all the chaos that is our atmosphere. 

Fraser: Yeah, and like engineers considered every possible idea. Like they thought of like what if we have a parachute? And what if we have something that’s inflatable? And what if this thing glides? And what if this thing lands gently in the ocean and we clean it up? They thought of every single – what if we catch it with an airplane, et cetera, et cetera. 

Dr. Gay: Yeah. 

Fraser: And in the end, the one that was the simplest, no fuss, no muss, was have the rocket use its own propulsion system to land on the ground again. But the micro adjustments required to do that were just beyond the capability of just computers until the last decade. 

Dr. Gay: And one of the things that I think aided and abetted in allowing this to happen was the commercial space race saying, “Yeah, we’re just gonna test this stuff with our own money. We’re gonna try and get all the federal contracts but by going solo we can use technologies that aren’t yet space certified and make them space certified along the way. The SLS is using a G3 from the late 90s. And with SpaceX and with the New Shepherd New Glenn series from Blue Origin, they’re using the latest processors, CPUs, GPUs, to figure everything out as they go. And that is huge. 

Fraser: Yeah, and it was amazing to watch as SpaceX was able to successfully – you know they had a lot of failures and then they started to stick the landings, but the landings weren’t close. And I saw a video just a couple of days ago showing just a most recent routine landing of a Falcon 9 booster, and it was – it must have been within centimeters of the X where it was supposed to land. It was so precise, so accurate. They have absolutely nailed this. And at this point, I mean, SpaceX is reusing these Falcon 9 boosters more than ten times. 

Dr. Gay: Yeah. 

Fraser: It’s incredible. 

Dr. Gay: And they’re able to do that because they have their own stuff they don’t mind if they inadvertently blow up. They’re testing just how many times you can reuse these boosters by taking the boosters that have been flown more times than they’re certified to carry NASA payloads, and they’re using them to lift Starlinks. So, they have their own commercial case that is paying for them to use experimental technologies. 

Fraser: And so, I think they really, in this case, SpaceX is really living the dream of having a space truck with the Falcon 9. And that was sort of always the hope with the space shuttle. Now of course, SpaceX isn’t the only company in the works. There are some competitors and one delighted you. 

Dr. Gay: This is true. So, pretty much everyone in the world is how trying to say, “How can I do what SpaceX is making so routine?” And my favorite rocket company – I never knew I’d have a favorite rocket company. My favorite rocket company is Rocket Lab. Their Electron rockets are huggable in size, beautiful tech. They are pioneering completely new kinds of rocket drives. And they basically had to say, “Look, we weigh nothing. We are tiny. There is nowhere in an Electron to put the stuff necessary to come back and land. But we have enough room for a parachute.” Because they’re essentially the biggest model rocket out there. 

And what they’re doing is launching, having that first stage come back, launch a drogue chute and a parachute and there is a good sturdy cable that a helicopter can come along and grab it from between the drogue chut and parachute and haul it on back to the landing site. And this means they don’t have to deal with, well the corrosive nature of ocean water, and they get to reuse that first stage. And they’re just in the process of figuring this out. But they’re taking this reusability and building it in from step one with their upcoming Neutron rockets, which are again taking that has wings, fully reusable Starship kind of design that again goes back to the original illustrators in the 1950s. There are no new ideas. 

Fraser: Right, right. And you know, we know that they did a test of the Electron rocket. They caught the booster but then dropped it. But they just announced, just a couple of days ago that they pot fired the engines, the Rutherford engines from that rocket, and they work great. So, even though it took a little bit of a swim, they’re gonna probably be able to reuse those engines if they – should they want to. But the goal, I mean, with the Electron – with the Neutron, the goal here now is to shift to a fully reusable two stage rocket. 

Dr. Gay: Yes. 

Fraser: So, not just the first stage, the booster stage, but actually reuse the upper stage as well. Which is, that’s the holy grail in space flight, where you reuse every single part of your rocket just like you reuse every single part of your airplane. 

Dr. Gay: And their design has been described as the hungry, hungry hippo rocket pharynx. With Falcon 9 they’re reusing their fairings, they have them pop off and flit back down. And they’re working to catch them in these really weird nets attached to big fast-moving boats. But again, catching things, having to bring them back, that adds cost. And it also adds danger. They are dropping some of these into the ocean and having to scoop them back out. With Neutron, they have this delightful plan to essentially have the fairings hinged, hang from inside their payload, and they’re flinging their payload out of this hinged set of fairings that they’re then closing back up and bringing that second stage back down to earth. 

And I don’t know why we haven’t done this already, other than that’s one more moving part and moving parts are difficult. But it just seems so straightforward. 

Fraser: It’s the upper stage. It’s the being able to retrieve the upper stage. And this is the – like SpaceX hasn’t been able to do this yet because the first stage is going relatively slowly. The upper stage is going close to orbital velocity. It’s tricky to then have some way of retrieving that upper stage. So, it’ll be interesting to see how Neutron actually solves this. Now there’s a couple of other rocket companies we should mention before we get on to, like I said, the stainless-steel elephant in the room. One is Blue Origin, and I would love to talk all about Blue Origin, but I have no idea what’s going on with Blue Origin. They don’t tell us anything. We’re just in the dark. I don’t know. They make rockets, maybe. 

Dr. Gay: Yeah. It’s actually one of the great frustrations of rocket watching. You have SpaceX on one side with the Tankwatchers who are getting all sorts of information from SpaceX and there’s all sorts of news, thoughts, tweets, and it feels like there is this constant deluge of information. You have all the public folks like Ariane Five that are sharing what they’re doing. And then with Blue Origin, we’re essentially having to look for no-fly zones to crop up guess that maybe they’re going to fly something based on a no-fly zone being published. 

Fraser: Right, I mean we have definitely been watching the launches and landings of the New Shepherd, but that is a suborbital flight. It goes up. It comes back down carrying tourists. But they are in theory building a giant rocket with a reusable first stage and we have no idea. So, until interesting things, they shall remain just barely mentioned. The other company we should talk about definitely is United Launch Alliance with their Vulcan rocket. And I was – I think I’ve mentioned this. I’ve been fortunate enough to actually talk to Tory Bruno about this, and the plan for the Vulcan is to have the, to capture the engines. 

Essentially the engines, the motors are the most expensive, most complicated part of the rocket and so if you can save those, you’re saving most of your development costs. And so, their plan is to use a giant inflatable heat shield that will expand like a bouncy castle and the motors will descend through the atmosphere. And what’s cool is it’s the same technology that NASA is planning to use for Mars. 

Dr. Gay: Yes. 

Fraser: For landing heavier payloads into the atmosphere of Mars, up to say three tons. So, the technology that’s gonna be retrieving Vulcan rocket engines. And these are Blue Origin BE4 engines, so it’s the same. So at least we know a little bit more about Blue Origins engines than we do know about their actually rocket companies. So, the Chinese are going all in on reusable rockets. There’s many private and government funded companies that are developing reusable rockets. We’ve seen lots of – we’ve seen some tests. Things have climbed to a couple of kilometers. 

We’ve seen some plans, but we don’t have a competitor to SpaceX yet. But I am guessing we will see that just in a matter of a couple of years. Where they will shift over big parts of their industry into reusable rockets. So, let’s talk about the big steel monster in Texas. 

Dr. Gay: Yes. And you and I were actually together in Huntsville when they announced that it was going to be steel instead of carbon fiber, and carbon fiber is what rocket labs is going with. So, I just love the diversity of what’s being used. So, Starship it has a belly covered in tiles to act as a heat shield. And the idea is that you have a giant rocket that is – it launches like a normal rocket and then it comes down and gets caught by chopsticks. Again, giant chopsticks. And then on top of it is Starship that is like some of the original ideas to have space planes mounted on the top of your rocket. 

Well, they’re actually taking the idea that Dream Chaser and others have had for these small space planes and scaling it up to something that is basically the 747 of carrying your crew into space. And the idea is, it will be able to come down on its belly, on that heat shield through the atmosphere, use avionics to control its descent, and then flip right before it gets to the ground and land politely. Just like they’re doing with the first stage of the Falcon 9. So, you don’t need to have those long runways that we had with the space shuttle. They’re just gonna be well doing their thing, potentially even out of the old, reused oil platforms in the ocean. 

Fraser: And it’s kind of amazing to see that SpaceX is just building these rockets out of stainless steel just on the landscape, just like as if they were office towers. And yet, in the end, this office tower is going to fly to space. And if they pull this off, you’ve got a rocket that is capable of launching more than a hundred tons into low earth orbit. And yet, both the booster stage and the upper stage are fully reusable. 

Dr. Gay: Yes. 

Fraser: And they can both be landed. Both can be refueled again and in theory, launch again within the day. Which is incredible. 

Dr. Gay: And there’s two different versions of Starship under development. We really only see the one right now, that they’re testing out in West Texas, and that’s the one that will go from ground to space and back again. But they’re also developing, what is essentially a ferry system to get from the surface of the moon and then out to a capsule or a small space station in cis lunar space, where we are looking at a future very much like the For All Mankind where you have astronauts as ferry drivers. And instead of having that lunar lander that they have in For All Mankind, it’s gonna be a giant Starship doing this 747 kind of thing. 

Fraser: A, it’s funny when you see the animation of the landing system docking with the lunar gateway and it’s bigger. 

Dr. Gay: Yes. 

Fraser: It’s so funny, yeah. It’s huge. So, where we stand right now is in this period of limbo, of flux. Blue Origin, who knows what they’re doing. It’s a mystery. United Launch Alliance, they’re waiting on their rocket engines and they’re gonna be building the Vulcan rocket. 

Dr. Gay: Yes. 

Fraser: Rocketlab, they’re working on the Neutron. SpaceX, they’ve got the Falcon 9 going, but all eyes are on what they’re gonna do with Starship. Who knows what China is working on. We didn’t even mention Russia. Russia says stuff. So, we, you know. 

Dr. Gay: India, India is trustworthy, and they are working on things in the Arianespace is looking at things. 

Fraser: Yeah, Europe is not doing too much. 

Dr. Gay: I said looking. 

Fraser: All right, fine. 

Dr. Gay: They’re in the contemplating stage. 

Fraser: So, the point being that we are in this weird place where we don’t know if these big – which of these big bets are gonna play off. And how and when. And it’s kind of exciting.

Dr. Gay: Yes. 

Fraser: Like there are a lot of players in the game. Obviously, the Starship seems like the most likely one to take off and run with it. But there are some really good ideas coming out of RocketLab, even efficiencies coming – you know and who knows, Blue Origin may have a beautiful, wonderful solution in their giant factory. We have no idea. But – 

Dr. Gay: Here’s to hoping. 

Fraser: Yeah, I can’t imagine. It’s such a thrilling time to be watching this space, pardon the pun and to see what happens. All right, thanks Pamela. 

Dr. Gay: Thank you, Fraser. And thank you to all of our patreon followers at patreon.com/astronomycast. You allow us to, well constantly improve on this show, doing better and better hopefully over time. 

This week, I would like to thank in particular, Stephen Veit, Burry Gowen, Jordan Young, Kevin Lyle, Jeanette Wink, nanoFlipps, Borre, Andre Lysvoll, J.F. Rajotte, Andrew Poelstra, Venkatesh Chary, Brian Cagle, David Truog, TheGiantNothing, Aurora Lipper, David, Gerhard Schwarzer, Bill Hamilton, Buzz Parsec, Ronald McCoy, cacoseraph, Laura Kittleson, Robert Palsma, Les Howard, Jack Mudge, Joe Hollstein, Gordan Dewis, Frank Tippin, Adam Annis-Brown, Alexis, Richard Drumm, William Baker, WandererM101, Zero Chill, Felix Gutt, William Andrews, Gold, and Jeff Collins. Thank you, all of you for making this show possible. 

Fraser: Take care everyone, and we’ll see you next week. 

Dr. Gay: Bye-bye. 

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