Video : SpaceX Grasshopper performs another test flight, reaching a peak altitude of 820 feet, tripling its previous public record and holding station in high winds.
Looking back from some future point in time, when the humanity has established itself as a multi planet species, historians are going question just why it was that in the post Shuttle era, NASA, the Air Force and the American aerospace establishment lost all interest in pursuing reusable launch technology, even as the cost of space launch services began to escalate beyond reason. That it would occur in at the same time an entirely different group of stakeholders, NewSpace companies, began making rapid progress in laying the foundation for a revolution in RLV systems will be all the more puzzling.
The revolution has been a long time coming, waiting on the right spark for almost 50 years. And that’s the thing. That one clarifying moment which says we can do this, we can begin to open up the space frontier for real, and for good, does not require a breakthrough in propulsion systems, or radical evolution in materials technology to enable the mass fractions of single stage to orbit. Instead, it requires no more, and no less, than a fully recoverable and reusable first stage. Fortunately, it does not even need to be “rapidly reusable,” at least not first.
The only thing required to fundamentally change the perception, and the reality of how we access space, is a reusable first stage whose recovery and refurbishment costs are marginally lower than the cost of a new first stage core produced by its closest economic competitor. While neither the major commercial satellite operators, and most certainly not the military, is going to be a rush to place high value payloads on a launch vehicle with a “used” first stage core when a new one is readily available at a price point which is already accepted, somebody else will.
Whether it is NASA finding new ways to work with private industries, as it is doing with Bigelow Aerospace, another NewSpace company willing to take a chance, or one of a growing number of sovereign states seeking to develop its own indigenous satellite but needing a break on launch costs, the customer is out there, waiting.
Once that moment has come, and the first commercial mission with a reusable first stage is in the history books, everything else becomes a matter of modest, sequential improvements. For the existing launch establishments, comfortable in a world fairly well-ordered for the last several decades, which have made the decision sit this one out, it might just be too late. The barbarians will already be at the gates. For the moment, they may still be beyond the furthest hill, but that moment will not last forever. If you were to look beyond the immediate horizon to the skies over Texas, it is readily apparent, they are coming.