In the closing notes of Perigee, I mentioned that one of the biggest reasons spaceflight has been so stupendously expensive is the problem of reusability. A big rocket is every bit as expensive and complex as a new airliner, but it all gets thrown away after one flight.
Think you could afford a weekend jaunt to Vegas if Southwest ditched their 737s at the end of every trip? For that matter, could they even afford to do business like that?
The answer, obviously, is a big fat NO.
There are other things at work, namely a bureaucratic legacy that has made it overly complicated to build any launchers for NASA (especially “human rated” ones). Their own internal studies admitted that if SpaceX had developed the Falcon launcher family along the traditional guvmint model, it would’ve increased costs by a factor of 10 or so.
The Air Force’s “evolved expendable launch vehicle” (EELV) program didn’t bring those costs down very much. But they did result in some way-cool rockets than can be used for lots of stuff besides milsats. Here’s a Delta IV-Heavy, which will take NASA’s Orion capsule on its first unmanned test flight next year:
Impressive. But now, check out this much smaller rocket – size doesn’t matter here, look at what it does:
Now for something that combines really big rockets with vertical landing, like something from a 50’s sci-fi movie. Given SpaceX’s success record, I have no doubt they’ll be able to make it happen: