Are today's spacecraft and carrier rockets really for one use only (launch and landing)? And then they can't be used anymore?

  • $\begingroup$ Generally yes. The most famous "partially reusable" spacecraft was the Space Shuttle. Note though that it only went up and down to orbit. Really, I think more and more a "spacecraft" is that something that goes to space - far away from Earth orbit. $\endgroup$ – Fattie Mar 2 '18 at 19:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Fattie, The generally accepted definition of "Outer Space" is, every place that is more than 100km from the surface of the Earth. If you just go straight up 100km and fall back to Earth, you can claim to have been in "Space." (Yay! Space...Dang!) $\endgroup$ – Solomon Slow Mar 2 '18 at 19:33
  • $\begingroup$ that's perfectly true @jameslarge , indeed . but words and common descriptions change. I really don't think you'd call the Space Shuttle a "spacecraft", today now. It's was just an orbital system. A "spacecraft" is like .. Voyager. You know? Of course, opinions differ. Food for thought! $\endgroup$ – Fattie Mar 2 '18 at 21:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Fattie - nope, this isn't opinion. Official designation of space is as James said. The space shuttle absolutely counts as a Space craft in every way. $\endgroup$ – Rory Alsop Mar 3 '18 at 19:08
  • $\begingroup$ Relevant: Scott Manley's A History Of Reused Spacecraft. $\endgroup$ – E.P. Mar 3 '18 at 21:48

The TL;DR answer is: it depends.

What's rapidly transforming the industry is that some rockets are now partially, (even mostly) reusable. Below, the two boosters from the Falcon Heavy land. Both are reused from previous flights.

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SpaceX and Blue Origin have both launched and successfully landed boosters, and both companies have re-flown those boosters. It's important to remember that both are only seeking to go to Low Earth Orbit(LEO), which is a short trip.

By contrast, virtually none of the SLS system NASA is developing is reusable because that rocket is aiming to put much larger payloads into deep space

[W]e have actual design decisions that simply make SLS completely impractical to recover. It focuses on getting the big payload to a high orbit, and through ignoring the necessity for reusability, it follows design principles that make recovery completely impractical.

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    $\begingroup$ Makes sense that SLS isn't reusable because its capacity is so much bigger than the Falcon Heavy... being 10% more... wait, no, that's just silly talk. Falcon Heavy is going to put SLS out of business. $\endgroup$ – corsiKa Mar 2 '18 at 16:33
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    $\begingroup$ @corsiKa Possibly, but FH is only rated for 54 metric tons, while SLS is supposed to do 130. BFR aims to outdo that... eventually. FH will probably put the Delta IV out of business, tho. $\endgroup$ – Machavity Mar 2 '18 at 17:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Machavity: My point is that a) robotic probes or satellites don't really need to weigh 130 tons; b) 54 tons is enough for a manned launch to Earth orbit; and c) human craft for deep space voyages would need to be much larger, and made up of multiple modules for redundancy, so best to assemble things in orbit. So what's left for SLS to do? $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Mar 2 '18 at 23:19
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    $\begingroup$ @RobRose "it's more like you sound like a SpaceX fanboy." I've said not a word about what SX, F9, FH or BFR can or will do. "The SLS *could ...*" No. The SLS is claimed to. It's speced to. It'll (probably, eventually, when my unborn grandchildren graduate HS) do it with enough political will. Also, the SLS has also been in development since 2011, and guess which flew first? $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Mar 3 '18 at 3:34
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    $\begingroup$ @RobRose I'm pretty sure BFR will fly--or at least some type of similar rocket from SpaceX. Musk running out of money is unlikely IMO as the falcon block 5 and heavy essentially outclass every rocket in existence price wise. Although SpaceX hasn't demonstrated block 5 yet, they're optimistic that they can reach a 3 day turnaround time per core. At this point launches become essentially fuel costs only, and relaunch costs for SpaceX drop them to 70%-95% profit per launch. At this profit ratio, ~14 launches could've funded the entire FH project. $\endgroup$ – Dragongeek Mar 3 '18 at 9:59

Mostly, yes. The other answers address the exceptions (Space Shuttle and SpaceX Falcon 9/FH).

For most of the history of spaceflight, reuse was a dream. The first rockets were derived from ICBMs, for which reusability was pointless. So the entire rocket was thrown away, and for manned missions, only the return capsule returned on Earth. These could theoretically be reused, but nobody bothered doing that.

Later on, various experiments always seemed to show reusability needed technology beyond the current state of the art, and/or would be more expensive to design than building a few rockets (meaning reusable systems would need a much higher flight rate than there was demand at the time to be economical). Space agencies did look at reusability time and time again (Dyna-Soar, Hermes, HOTOL, Sänger, MUSTARD, X-33, DC-X, for example).

Only NASA had a go at putting a reusable system into production (the Shuttle) and found out the hard way how expensive it would be to a. develop all the new technology necessary and b. refurbish the Orbiter after every landing because the high-tech approach they used was very maintenance-intensive.

Almost all these systems used wings to land the spacecraft horizontally on a runway. This made them large, heavy, and vulnerable. Landing a stage vertically was not looked at until the 1990s with the DC-X. SpaceX and Blue Origin demonstrated this to be a viable approach, and much cheaper than a spaceplane.

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    $\begingroup$ To be fair, part of the excessive expense of the shuttle's reusability was that it was designed to be able to do everything for everyone. As a result, the vast majority of its flights ended up being rather like driving a deuce-and-a-half to the corner grocery store to pick up a loaf of bread. $\endgroup$ – Perkins Mar 2 '18 at 18:38
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    $\begingroup$ The USAF also has an operational reusable orbital platform. $\endgroup$ – reirab Mar 2 '18 at 23:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Perkins: I'm not sure that's the case. The wings are far larger than NASA needed them to be, but even if you make the wings smaller, you still need that state-of-the-art but very maintenance-intensive heat shield. Same goes for the engines. $\endgroup$ – Hobbes Mar 3 '18 at 8:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Hobbes compared to a single-use vehicle though, you'd expect to save money by reusing the chassis, even if you have to completely replace the engines and heat shield every time; which is why they wanted a reusable vehicle in the first place. But they built one that could haul 20 tons into orbit and back, and then routinely used it for carrying only a small portion of that, resulting in real-world operational costs that were likely higher than just using purpose-built vehicles would have been. You see the same phenomenon in military drone designs that are expected to to everything for everyone $\endgroup$ – Perkins Jul 31 '18 at 21:26

Not all.

In particular, the single huge advancement SpaceX made is a reusable launcher (Falcon 9) and reusable spacecraft/lander (Dragon) that are economically viable.

There are still no systems fully reusable - Falcon 9 second stage burns up on reentry - but its cost is relatively minor relative to the complete stack.

Before SpaceX, there was the Space Shuttle - with reusable orbiter and solid rocket boosters, and disposable liquid fuel tank. The one big problem with the Shuttle was economy though - the launches could never turn up a profit, because the process of refurbishing and preparing the orbiter after each landing was exceptionally costly - like systems that were supposed to last 50 flights would begin failing after 5, and had to be checked after every single one. Launching and refurbishing Falcon 9 costs about 1/10th of the cost of a shuttle launch, and while they payloads are smaller, the cost difference makes the system actually profitable, and able to fund own R&D and growth instead of being an eternal money sink.

  • $\begingroup$ There is no evidence as of yet that SpaceX has made reuse any more economically viable. Their finances are not public, and what has leaked they are on razor thin margins that one rocket exploding means they don't turn a profit. $\endgroup$ – Rob Rose Mar 3 '18 at 3:15
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    $\begingroup$ Going from massive loss to the edge of a profit is a damn good increase in economic viability, and that wasn't even the claim made, which is only that previous reusables were not and F9/Dragon are. $\endgroup$ – Nij Mar 3 '18 at 5:32
  • $\begingroup$ @RobRose: they invest about all the surplus into R&D. They'd be quite profitable if they just decided to perform just commercial launches on what they have and cut funds on research of new rockets. $\endgroup$ – SF. Mar 3 '18 at 19:25

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