Reducing the Cost of Space Travel with Reusable Launch Vehicles

February 12, 2024
Reducing the Cost of Space Travel with Reusable Launch Vehicles

The cost of a space launch can vary depending on many factors, including the payload weight, destination and type of rocket used. In recent times, the average cost of a single space launch can range from tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launches have been advertised at around $62 million per launch, while larger rockets like the Falcon Heavy can cost upwards of $90 million per launch. On the higher end, NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) is estimated to cost over $2 billion per launch.

While all the time, we are advancing the technology in space exploration, one of the main challenges we’re facing now is lowering these costs of space travel.

The Challenge of Traditional Space Travel Costs

The amount of labor hours needed to design, build, sustain, and test a rocket for successful launch costs some serious money.

Using the traditional method of building rockets for a single-use mission adds to these expenses, which lowers the frequency and scale of launches. The need for a more sustainable and cost-effective method is apparent.

Enter Reusable Launch Vehicles

Unlike disposable rockets, reusable rockets, which have come into popularity recently, are designed to be recovered and launched again multiple times.

These rockets use features like:

Propulsive landing: The rocket’s first stage returns to Earth under its own power and lands vertically, using engines to slow its descent.

Modular design: Components of the rocket are designed for easy disassembly and refurbishment in between flights.

Heat shield technology: Reusable rockets can use advanced heat shield materials to protect them during re-entry.

Advanced manufacturing: Reusable rockets often use cutting-edge manufacturing materials to ensure durability throughout multiple launches.

The Economics of Rocket Reusability

The economic benefits of reusable launch vehicles are considerable. Using a reusable rocket over a traditional rocket can be up to 65% cheaper.

Consider a commercial airplane – if every flight involved building a new plane, air travel would be expensive. The concept of reusability in space launches aims to reduce these costs significantly.

Traditional rocket launches are akin to using a single-use disposable item, where the entire rocket is used after a single flight. In contrast, reusable space launch systems spread the development and manufacturing costs across multiple missions.

This model promises to lower costs for missions like satellite deployment, resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS) and missions to the Moon and Mars.

The Environmental Benefits of Rocket Reusability

Beyond cost savings, reusable launch vehicles also contribute to a more sustainable approach to space exploration. Reducing the number of discarded rocket components lowers space debris, which is a growing issue, and has an environmental impact, aligning with the growing global emphasis on responsible and sustainable practices.

In addition, reusable rockets use less fuel than expendable rockets, making them comparatively better for the environment.

Recent Projects and Innovations in Rocket Reusability

SpaceX and the Falcon 9

A testament to the success of reusable launch vehicles is SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

The Falcon 9 is a reusable, two-stage rocket designed and manufactured by SpaceX for safely transporting people and payloads into Earth orbit and beyond. As the world’s first orbital class reusable rocket, this rocket can refly its most expensive parts, which drives down the cost of space access. Powered by SpaceX’s Merlin engine, the Falcon 9 booster can be reused over 10 times, with minimal maintenance between flights.

SpaceX has achieved multiple successful landings and relaunches, showing the potential for mission frequency in reusable rockets.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard

Beyond SpaceX, several other players in the aerospace industry are contributing to the field of rocket reusability.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard, for instance, is designed for suborbital flights and is paving the way for reusable technology in space tourism. Blue Origin uses New Shepard to launch space tourists on brief flights and aims to launch people and payloads to orbit, using a new rocket under development called New Glenn, which is slated to launch in 2024.

Rocket Lab

Companies like Rocket Lab, a Space Enterprise Consortium (SpEC) member with NSTXL, are exploring innovative ways to recover and reuse rocket components.

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket is described as ‘the world’s first reusable orbital small rocket’ and is already the world’s most frequently launched small rocket annually. Rocket Lab equips Electron’s first stage with a parachute to slow its descent from space back to Earth, where it touches down in the ocean for collection and refurbishment, ready for its next flight.

Last year, we caught up with Shaun D’Mello, VP of Launch at Rocket Lab, to discuss the progression of the USTAGE program awarded through the SpEC OTA in 2021. In addition, Shaun referenced the Electron project and the impact of its birth in the reusable rocket space. Watch the full video below:

SpEC Channeling Innovation in Space Technology

The integration of cutting-edge technologies will be key in furthering space travel. Whether it be Space Situational Awareness or advancing next-generation rocket testing, the SpEC OTA is continuously harvesting new technology from our community to further space endeavors.

Towards New Horizons

Reusable launch vehicles are revolutionizing space exploration by reducing costs and increasing the frequency of missions.

By encouraging new innovators to join our mission, we can contribute to shaping the future of space exploration, making it more accessible and cost-efficient.

About SpEC

In 2017, the Space and Missile Systems Center established SpEC to connect the Department of Defense (DoD) with a network of innovators and creators across the most sought-after emerging technology fields as they research and develop space-related prototypes.

These opportunities come at a key stage in SpEC’s growth. Building on an already groundbreaking year, SpEC continues to fuel innovation for DoD space advancement and push the boundaries of prototype development.

Companies interested in joining the Space Enterprise Consortium and submitting on these opportunities can find more information about the organization, including how to join at


NSTXL is focused on building a network of innovators and creators across the most sought-after emerging technology fields. As an open-source platform, our approach was designed to encourage network growth and collaboration without stifling change. We support our network by providing commercial-term contracting, open-source technology discovery, modern-day marketing outreach, a strongly interconnected network for easy teaming and cybersecurity compliance support.

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