As CNET reported on Saturday, SpaceX’s Elon Musk announced that the first stage of the Falcon 9, which so spectacularly landed after helping to lift a flock of satellites into orbit, us undamaged and is ready to be launched again. However, the company will not reuse this particular first stage, opting instead to put it on display as a historical artifact. As SpaceFlight Insider noted, the feat is a milestone in the decades-long quest for reusable rockets now being pursued by companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. However, George Sowers, a vice president for Business Development and Advanced Concepts at United Launch Alliances, begged to differ that there is a business case to be made for reusable rockets.
The truism that throwing away rockets every time one launches a spacecraft is a wasteful, expensive way to do space travel. Both NASA and private industry have been trying to build and fly reusable rockets for decades. The space shuttle system was (sort of) reusable, but still expensive to fly because of the difficulty and length of turnaround.
SpaceX seems to have demonstrated that it has achieved two of the prerequisites for lowering the cost of space travel, reusability and fast turnaround (though the latter will only really be proved when the company flies a first stage that was already flown.) However, as Sowers points out, the third prerequisite is flight rates. It does little good to make a launch system reusable and easy to turn around if it only flies a handful of times.
Advocates for reusable rockets point out that since they would lower launch costs, then the high flight rates will follow as more customers can afford to put payloads into space. In any case, with companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin recovering rockets, the race for reusability is on.