Noting the progress that SpaceX is making with its Falcon 9 reusable first stage technology (its first landing attempt is to take place in January), and that India is planning tests of a winged reusable first stage, Europe is, at last, re-examining the case for reusable space launch technology. While the European Space Agency (ESA) already has interests in reusable launch vehicles via the British firm, Reaction Engines Limited, and its Skylon air-breathing single-stage-to-orbit rocket plane concept, the French Space Agency CNES in concert with Germany, has decided to hedge its bets by starting research into reusable conventional rockets using LOx (liquid oxygen) and methane as propellants.

Grid paddle fins on Falcon 9R first stage. Courtesy: Elon Musk/SpaceX

Grid paddle fins on Falcon 9R first stage. Courtesy: Elon Musk/SpaceX

In an announcement reported in Space News, the French Space Agency CNES director of launchers, Michel Eymard revealed that ESA was, in effect, restarting a technology development programme to examine whether such reusable first stage technology may eventually be used for Ariane rockets.  A previous programme with Russia examined the use of liquid flyback boosters.

Eymard warned that the key to economic reusability was a high enough quality of refurbishment between flights at a low enough price, along with enough flights to make it cost effective.

Comment by David Todd: Monsieur Eymard is right. The stringent quality control requirements for refurbishment of the Space Shuttle Main Engines and the orbiter’s thermal protection system tiles are what ruined the Space Shuttle’s reusable economics.   The resulting very low flight rate and high refurbishment costs made the Space Shuttle about four times as expensive on a per launch basis as the conventional expendable rockets it was meant to replace.

Reusable first stages are all very well but it only takes you part of the way (excuse the pun) and this Franco-German move to keep leadership in European reusable rocket technology may yet become another Cul-de-Sac.  To make reusable operations really work you need a fast turn around with very low refurbishment costs and quick and easy vehicle and payload integration operations. It is Reaction Engine’s effort to make Skylon at least an “airline-style” single-stage-to-orbit operation with fast turnarounds that makes it probably the best option for truly reusable operations.

Of course, this writer could be biased given he has a small financial interest in Reaction Engines Limited and its Skylon rocket plane.  However, his saving grace is that he was one of the original investors more than twenty years ago as he foresaw that true reusability was the future. Yes – Skylon has taken that long to reach fruition (and it still has several years to go).  However, a cheap-to-operate system offering a weekly access to space for a low cost is really is what the world really needs if mankind is ever to build and service large scale space infrastructures at a cheap enough price.