Cheap, reusable space launchers are still years away for Chinese military
24 Mar 2021|

China’s range of space launchers is proliferating remarkably. But the state industry is still years from giving the country, especially its military, the low costs of reusable rockets.

Instead, the industry is doing what it likes most, driving down costs with large-scale production of traditional, non-reusable launchers. Thanks to that, its launch costs are even lower than the prices (not costs) of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has become a mainstream launch provider for the US Space Force.

China’s main space contractor, the sprawling state organisation China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), flew its latest product successfully on 11 March, a year after a first, unsuccessful flight. The rocket is Long March 7A, the second version of the Long March 7 series. This version can throw heavier satellites to geostationary transfer orbit than China’s main launcher for that mission, Long March 3B, and it should be much cheaper than Long March 5, which has greater capability.

The Long March 7 series was one of three types originally planned in a long-running program to rationalise and update the country’s suite of launchers, increasing payload sizes and getting rid of toxic propellant. New versions of the other two types, the Long March 5 and Long March 6 series, have also appeared, with more in the works. And a fourth member of the family, Long March 8, first flew in December (successfully).

Long March 8 is CASC’s answer to the SpaceX challenge. When plans to develop it were revealed in 2017, it was to be a non-reusable rocket that would achieve low costs by being made of modules from its siblings. Doing so would simplify development and raise production rates. This idea was no doubt agreeable to CASC, because it would help keep factories busy and people employed.

It did not satisfy someone, however. One senses the influence of CASC’s chief customer, the Chinese military, which at that time was watching its US counterpart begin to use SpaceX’s mostly reusable Falcon 9 rocket. (Most of a Falcon 9, the first stage, returns to earth for reuse. SpaceX can also recover the costly fairing that covers the payload at the top.)

Whoever gave the order, CASC changed tack in 2018: Long March 8 would have a reusable first stage, it said then. Now Long March 8 is in service, but it’s not reusable yet. China (meaning CASC) won’t produce a reusable launcher until 2025, the group said in November. That should be a version of the Long March 8, which will land vertically, like the Falcon 9. A reusable version of Long March 6, a smaller launcher, is also in the works.

Making an orbital rocket land on its tail is hard, which is why it didn’t happen until 2015. High among the challenges is precisely controlling the thing. Related to that, thrust has to come down from maximum at launch to a very low value on landing, because at that point the stage is very light, almost empty of propellant. So the rocket has to take off with many engines (nine on a Falcon 9) but land with only one, the thrust of which is further reduced by deep throttling, another tricky problem.

CASC’s launcher and engine subsidiaries haven’t been ready for this. The engine of the Long March 5, 6 and 7, the YF-100, is probably more powerful than the ideal for a reusable configuration. Also, it wasn’t designed for reusability and can’t throttle deeply. So CASC is working on throttling and making the YF-100 robust enough to fly more than once. The group is also the apparent customer for a privately developed reusable engine that could replace the YF-100. Guidance and control technology for landing is needed, too.

With so much to be done, it’s easy to see why the target for getting a Long March 8 version to land vertically is still so distant. Other concepts for reusability from CASC and state rival China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation look even further away, except maybe recovery of stages that drop back to earth under parachutes.

Meanwhile, companies in China’s new private space sector are developing complete launchers that are supposed eventually to become reusable. Best known among these companies are iSpace and Landspace. Sources in the industry say the private launch firms have lured away many of CASC’s best people, another problem for the state group. On the other hand, the private companies will need to beware their employees bringing across the stifling culture of personal connections that is rife in the Chinese government.

It’s unclear when private Chinese companies will begin flying reusable launchers. ISpace looks like it’s in the lead, but its rocket will have less than a quarter of Long March 8’s launch capability.

However quickly private companies progress, the military may keep paying for throw-away rockets anyway, because of a peculiarity in Chinese economics and government. Chinese state companies are supposed to compete in a market, but they can pull strings, especially if the firms are big, belong to the central government and have nationally important roles. CASC has all those advantages. So officials may well keep private companies out of the government market, or largely so.

Meanwhile, CASC is achieving pretty low costs thanks to high demand for an old rocket model that was developed in the 1990s with technology going back to the 1960s. This is the Long March 3A series. Conveniently for comparison, its main version, Long March 3B, exactly equals Falcon 9 (in reusable mode) in terms of payload to geosynchronous transfer orbit, at 5.5 tonnes. SpaceX charges civil customers a highly competitive US$62 million for such a mission. (Military launches cost more.) But a Chinese official told me in 2019 that improved processes and high production rates had driven the cost of CASC’s launches down in recent years to about US$50 million from US$70 million.

SpaceX’s costs are still far lower at just US$28 million per launch. As the only company that can reuse first stages, it has a lot of headroom for profit.