Reusable launch system

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The Space Shuttle Columbia launching on the first Space Shuttle mission
The first (partially) reusable space launch system, the Space Shuttle Columbia, at its first launch 1981 (STS-1).

A reusable launch system is a launch system that allows for the reuse of some or all of the component stages. To date, several fully reusable suborbital systems and partially reusable orbital systems have been flown.

The first reusable launch vehicle to reach orbit was the Space Shuttle (in 1981), which failed to accomplish the intended goal of reducing launch costs to below those of expendable launch systems.

During the 21st century, commercial interest in reusable launch systems has grown considerably, with several active launchers. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said that if one can figure out how to reuse rockets like airplanes then the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred.[1] SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket has a reusable first stage and capsule (for Dragon flights) and expendable second stage. The Spaceship Company has flown reusable suborbital spaceplanes, and the suborbital Blue Origin New Shepard rocket has recoverable first stages and crew capsules.


Reusable launch systems may be either fully or partially reusable.

Fully reusable launch systems[edit]

Full reusable systems can be single stage to orbit (SSTO), as well as multiple (two- or three)-stage to orbit systems. Fully reusable systems are yet to be proven viable; theoretical single stage systems and the second stage of existing partially reusable multiple stage designs are not reusable yet.

Plans for the second stage of the Falcon 9 to be made reusable, creating a fully reusable system, have been canceled. The SpaceX Starship is being designed as a fully reusable launch system.

Partially reusable launch systems[edit]

Partial reusable launch systems, in the form of multiple stage to orbit systems have been so far the only reusable configurations in use.

Liftoff stages[edit]

Existing reusable launch systems use rocket-propelled vertical liftoff.

Other than that a range of non-rocket liftoff systems have been proposed and explored over time as reusable systems for liftoff, from balloons[2][relevant?] to space elevators. Existing examples are systems which employ winged horizontal jet-engine powered liftoff. Such aircraft can air launch expendable rockets and can because of that be considered partially reusable systems if the aircraft is thought of as the first stage of the launch vehicle. An example of this configuration is the Orbital Sciences Pegasus. For suborbital flight the SpaceShipTwo uses for liftoff a carrier plane, its mothership the Scaled Composites White Knight Two.

Orbital insertion stages[edit]

So far, launch systems achieve orbital insertion with multistaged rockets, particularly with the second and third stages. Only the Space Shuttle has achieved a partial reuse of the orbital insertion stage, by using the engines of its orbiter.

Reusable orbiter[edit]

Launch systems can be combined with reusable orbiters. The Space Shuttle orbiter, SpaceShipTwo and the being tested Indian RLV-TD are examples for a reusable space vehicle (a spaceplane) as well as a part of its launch system.

More contemporarily the Falcon 9 launch system has carried reusable vehicles such as the Dragon 2 and X-37, transporting two reusable vehicles at the same time.

Contemporary reusable orbital vehicles include the X-37, the Dream Chaser, the Dragon 2, the Indian RLV-TD and the upcoming European Space Rider (successor to the IXV).

As with launch vehicles, all pure spacecraft during the early decades of human capacity to achieve spaceflight were designed to be single-use items. This was true both for satellites and space probes intended to be left in space for a long time, as well as any object designed to return to Earth such as human-carrying space capsules or the sample return canisters of space matter collection missions like Stardust (1999–2006)[3] or Hayabusa (2005–2010).[4][5] Exceptions to the general rule for space vehicles were the US Gemini SC-2, the Soviet Union spacecraft Vozvraschaemyi Apparat (VA), the US Space Shuttle orbiter (mid-1970s-2011, with 135 flights between 1981 and 2011) and the Soviet Buran (1980-1988, with just one uncrewed test flight in 1988). Both of these spaceships were also an integral part of the launch system (providing launch acceleration) as well as operating as medium-duration spaceships in space. This began to change in the mid-2010s.

In the 2010s, the space transport cargo capsule from one of the suppliers resupplying the International Space Station was designed for reuse, and after 2017,[6] NASA began to allow the reuse of the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft on these NASA-contracted transport routes. This was the beginning of design and operation of a reusable space vehicle.

Since then also the Boeing Starliner capsules reduce their fall speed with parachutes and deploy an airbag shortly before touchdown on the ground, in order to retrieve and reuse the vehicle.

As of 2020, SpaceX is currently building and testing the Starship spaceship to be capable of surviving multiple hypersonic reentries through the atmosphere so that they become truly reusable long-duration spaceships; no Starship reuse flights have yet occurred.

Entry systems[edit]

Heat shield[edit]

With possible inflatable heat shields, as developed by the US (Low Earth Orbit Flight Test Inflatable Decelerator - LOFTID)[7] and China,[8] single-use rockets like the Space Launch System are considered to be retrofitted with such heat shields to salvage the expensive engines, possibly reducing the costs of launches significantly.[9]

Retrograde thrust[edit]

Launch systems like the Falcon 9 employ for their reusable stages not only at landing retrograde burns, but also at re-entry and even for boostback burns instead of only aiming for landing downrange.

Landing systems[edit]

Reusable systems can come in single or multiple (two or three) stages to orbit configurations. For some or all stages the following landing system types can be employed.



These are landing systems that employ parachutes and bolstered hard landings, like in a splashdown at sea or a touchdown at land.

Though such systems have been in use since the beginning of astronautics to recover space vehicles, particularly crewed space capsules, only later have the vehicles been reused.


Horizontal (winged)[edit]

Single or main stages, as well as fly-back boosters can employ a horizontal landing system.

Examples are:

A variant is an in-air-capture tow back system, advocated by a company called EMBENTION with its FALCon project.[10]

Vehicles that land horizontally on a runway require wings and undercarriage. These typically consume about 9-12% of the landing vehicle mass,[citation needed] which either reduces the payload or increases the size of the vehicle. Concepts such as lifting bodies offer some reduction in wing mass,[citation needed] as does the delta wing shape of the Space Shuttle.

Vertical (retrograde)[edit]

Systems like the McDonnell Douglas DC-X (Delta Clipper) and those by SpaceX are examples of a retrograde system. The boosters of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy land using one of their nine engines. The Falcon 9 rocket is the first orbital rocket to vertically land its first stage on the ground. Both stages of Starship are planned to land vertically.

Retrograde landing typically requires about 10% of the total first stage propellant, reducing the payload that can be carried due to the rocket equation.[11]


Extra weight[edit]

Reusable stages weigh more than equivalent expendable stages. This is unavoidable due to the supplementary systems, landing gear and/or surplus propellant needed to land a stage. The actual mass penalty depends on the vehicle and the return mode chosen.[12]


After the launcher lands, it may need to be refurbished to prepare it for its next flight. This process may be lengthy and expensive. And the launcher may not be able to be recertified as human-rated after refurbishment. There is eventually a limit on how many times a launcher can be refurbished before it has to be retired, but how often a spacecraft can be reused differs significantly between the various launch system designs.


With the development of rocket propulsion in the first half of the twentieth century, space travel became a technical possibility.

Early ideas of a single-stage reusable spaceplane proved unrealistic and although even the first practical rocket vehicles (V-2) could reach the fringes of space, reusable technology was too heavy. In addition many early rockets were developed to deliver weapons, making reuse impossible by design. The problem of mass efficiency was overcome by using multiple expendable stages in a vertical-launch multistage rocket. USAF and NACA had been studying orbital reusable spaceplanes since 1958, e.g. Dyna-Soar, but the first reusable stages did not fly until the advent of the US Space Shuttle in 1981.

20th century[edit]

McDonnell Douglas DC-X used vertical takeoff and vertical landing

Perhaps the first reusable launch vehicles were the ones conceptualized and studied by Wernher von Braun from 1948 until 1956. The Von Braun Ferry Rocket underwent two revisions: once in 1952 and again in 1956. They would have landed using parachutes.[13][14]

The General Dynamics Nexus was proposed in the 1960s as a fully reusable successor to the Saturn V rocket, having the capacity of transporting up to 450–910 t (990,000–2,000,000 lb) to orbit.[15][16] See also Sea Dragon, and Douglas SASSTO.

The BAC Mustard was studied starting in 1964. It would have comprised three identical spaceplanes strapped together and arranged in two stages. During ascent the two outer spaceplanes, which formed the first stage, would detach and glide back individually to earth. It was canceled after the last study of the design in 1967 due to a lack of funds for development.[17]

NASA started the Space Shuttle design process in 1968, with the vision of creating a fully reusable spaceplane using a crewed fly-back booster. This concept proved expensive and complex, therefore the design was scaled back to reusable solid rocket boosters and an expendable external tank.[18][19] The Shuttle was more expensive to operate over its 30-year lifetime than an expendable launch system would have been.[citation needed] Space Shuttle Columbia launched and landed 27 times and was lost with all crew on the 28th landing attempt; Challenger launched and landed 9 times and was lost with all crew on the 10th launch attempt; Discovery launched and landed 39 times; Atlantis launched and landed 33 times.

In 1986 President Ronald Reagan called for an air-breathing scramjet National Aerospace Plane (NASP)/X-30. The project failed due to technical issues and was canceled in 1993.[20]

In the late 1980s a fully reusable version of the Energia rocket, the Energia II, was proposed. Its boosters and core would have had the capability of landing separately on a runway.[21]

In the 1990s the McDonnell Douglas Delta Clipper VTOL SSTO proposal progressed to the testing phase. The DC-X prototype demonstrated rapid turnaround time and automatic computer control.

In mid-1990s, British research evolved an earlier HOTOL design into the far more promising Skylon design, which remains in development.

From the late 1990s to the 2000s, the European Space Agency studied the recovery of the Ariane 5 solid rocket boosters.[22] The last recovery attempt took place in 2009.[23]

The commercial ventures, Rocketplane Kistler and Rotary Rocket, attempted to build reusable privately developed rockets before going bankrupt.[citation needed]

NASA proposed reusable concepts to replace the Shuttle technology, to be demonstrated under the X-33 and X-34 programs, which were both cancelled in the early 2000s due to rising costs and technical issues.

21st century[edit]

Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne used horizontal landing after being launched from a carrier airplane
Falcon Heavy side boosters landing during 2018 demonstration mission.

The Ansari X Prize contest was intended to develop private suborbital reusable vehicles. Many private companies competed, with the winner, Scaled Composites, reaching the Kármán line twice in a two-week period with their reusable SpaceShipOne.

In 2012, SpaceX started a flight test program with experimental vehicles. These subsequently led to the development of the Falcon 9 reusable rocket launcher.[24]

On 23 November 2015 the New Shepard rocket became the first Vertical Take-off, Vertical Landing (VTVL) sub-orbital rocket to reach space by passing the Kármán line (100 km or 62 mi), reaching 329,839 ft (100,535 m) before returning for a propulsive landing.[25][26]

SpaceX achieved the first vertical soft landing of a reusable orbital rocket stage on December 21, 2015, after delivering 11 Orbcomm OG-2 commercial satellites into low Earth orbit.[27]

The first reuse of a Falcon 9 first stage occurred on 30 March 2017.[28] SpaceX now routinely recovers and reuses their first stages, as well as reusing fairings.[29]

In 2019 Rocket Lab announced plans to recover and reuse the first stage of their Electron launch vehicle, intending to use parachutes and mid-air retrieval.[30] On 20 November 2020, Rocket Lab successfully returned an Electron first stage from an orbital launch, the stage softly splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.[31]

China is researching the reusability of the Long March 8 system.[32]

As of May 2020, the only operational reusable orbital-class launch systems are the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, the latter of which is based upon the Falcon 9. SpaceX is also developing the fully-reusable Starship launch system,[33] and Blue Origin is developing its own New Glenn partially-reusable orbital rocket, as it is intending to recover and reuse only the first stage.

5 October 2020, Roscosmos signed a development contract for Amur a new launcher with a reusable first stage.[34]

In December 2020, ESA signed contracts to start developing THEMIS, a prototype reusable first stage launcher.[35]

List of reusable launch systems[edit]

Company Vehicle Country Type Status Notes
SpaceX Falcon 9 US Orbital Operational First stage and fairing reusable.
SpaceX Falcon Heavy US Orbital Operational Core, side boosters and fairing reusable.
SpaceX Starship US Orbital Prototype Fully reusable.
Rocket Lab Electron New Zealand Orbital Operational First stage recovered but not yet reused.
Rocket Lab Neutron New Zealand Orbital Under development First stage reusable
Blue Origin New Shepard US Suborbital Under development Fully reusable
Blue Origin New Glenn US Orbital Under development First stage reusable
United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur US Orbital Under development First stage engine module reusable in a later development.
Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo or VSS Unity US Suborbital Prototype Designed for space tourism. Fully reusable
Virgin Galactic SpaceShipThree or VSS Imagine US Suborbital Prototype Designed for space tourism. Fully reusable
NASA Space Shuttle US Orbital Retired Orbiter and side boosters reusable at great expense
NPO-Energia Energia-Buran or OK-GLI USSR Orbital Retired Only Buran orbiter payload reusable; Energia launcher fully expended.
ISRO RLV TSTO India Orbital Under development Two Stage to Orbit with initial upper stage reusability and eventual full reusability
I-space Hyperbola-2 China Orbital Under development Prototype
Roscosmos Amur Russia Orbital Under development Prototype
ESA Themis EU Orbital Under development Prototype, aiming for first stage reuse

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ Reyes, Tim (October 17, 2014). "Balloon launcher Zero2Infinity Sets Its Sights to the Stars". Universe Today. Retrieved 9 July 2015.
  3. ^ Muir, Hazel (15 January 2006). "Pinch of comet dust lands safely on Earth". New Scientist. Retrieved 20 January 2018.
  4. ^ "Mission Accomplished For Japan's Asteroid Explorer Hayabusa". Archived from the original on June 16, 2010.
  5. ^ "Space Probe, Perhaps with a Chunk of Asteroid, Returns to Earth Sunday". 13 June 2010. Archived from the original on 16 June 2010. Retrieved 13 June 2010.
  6. ^ Clark, Stephen. "Cargo manifest for SpaceX's 11th resupply mission to the space station". Spaceflight Now. Retrieved 3 June 2017.
  7. ^ Marder, Jenny (3 July 2019). "Inflatable Decelerator Will Hitch a Ride on the JPSS-2 Satellite". NOAA. Retrieved 30 October 2019.
  8. ^ Xinhua Editorial Board (5 May 2020). ""胖五"家族迎新 送新一代载人飞船试验船升空——长征五号B运载火箭首飞三大看点 (LM5 Family in focus: next generation crewed spacecraft and other highlight of the Long March 5B maiden flight)". Xinhua News (in Chinese).
  9. ^ Bill D'Zio (7 May 2020). "Is China's inflatable space tech a $400 Million Cost savings for NASA's SLS?". Retrieved 29 October 2020.
  10. ^ "FALCon". Retrieved 29 October 2020.
  11. ^ "SpaceX on Twitter". Twitter. Retrieved January 7, 2016.
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  13. ^ "von Braun concept vehicle".
  14. ^ "Wernher von Braun's Fantastic Vision: Ferry Rocket | WIRED" – via
  15. ^ "ch2".
  16. ^ "Nexus".
  17. ^ "Forgotten 1960s 'Thunderbirds' projects brought to life". BAE Systems | United Kingdom.
  18. ^ NASA-CR-195281, "Utilization of the external tanks of the space transportation system"
  19. ^ "STS External Tank Station". Archived from the original on 7 April 2015. Retrieved 7 January 2015.
  20. ^ "Copper Canyon". Retrieved 2018-06-08.
  21. ^ "Б.И.Губанов. Триумф и трагедия "Энергии" глава 41".
  22. ^ "Recovery of an Ariane 5 booster at sea". Retrieved 2021-03-03.
  23. ^ "France in Space #387". Retrieved 2021-03-03.
  24. ^ Lindsey, Clark (2013-03-28). "SpaceX moving quickly towards fly-back first stage". NewSpace Watch. Retrieved 2013-03-29.
  25. ^ "Blue Origin Makes Historic Reusable Rocket Landing in Epic Test Flight". Calla Cofield. Space.Com. 2015-11-24. Retrieved 2015-11-25.
  26. ^ Berger, Eric. "Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk spar over gravity of Blue Origin rocket landing". Ars Technica. Retrieved 25 November 2015.
  27. ^ "SpaceX on Twitter". Twitter.
  28. ^ "SpaceX successful [sic] launches first recycled rocket – video". The Guardian. Reuters. 31 March 2017.
  29. ^ April 2019, Mike Wall 12. "SpaceX Recovered Falcon Heavy Nose Cone, Plans to Re-fly it This Year (Photos)".
  30. ^ "Rocket Lab Announces Reusability Plans For Electron Rocket". Rocket Lab. 6 August 2019. Retrieved 7 December 2019.
  31. ^ "Rocket Lab launches Electron in test of booster recovery". SpaceNews. 2020-11-20. Retrieved 2020-11-20.
  32. ^ "China to test rocket reusability with planned Long March 8 launcher". 2018-04-30. Retrieved 2020-10-04.
  33. ^ Elon Musk (29 September 2017). Becoming a Multiplanet Species (video). 68th annual meeting of the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia: SpaceX. Retrieved 2017-12-31 – via YouTube.CS1 maint: location (link)
  34. ^ "Trouble-free as a Kalashnikov assault rifle: the Amur methane rocket" (in Russian). Roscosmos. 5 October 2020. Retrieved 6 October 2020.
  35. ^ "ESA plans demonstration of a reusable rocket stage". Space Daily.


  • Heribert Kuczera, et al.: Reusable space transportation systems. Springer, Berlin 2011, ISBN 978-3-540-89180-2.

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