How Spacex is Disrupting an Industry

And how China, India, and Japan are fighting back.

The aero empires are striking back. Rebel SpaceX, against all odds, has become the first private company to launch into orbit, built the world’s largest rocket, became the first to land and reuse rockets, and recently shuttled crew for NASA. Their success is having a ripple-effect around the world. With its disruptive innovation, SpaceX has caught the entire launch industry off-guard. For an industry that had long been accustomed to slow and cautious steps forward, SpaceX has been dancing around the competition for a decade…but now they’re running to catch up. Part one focused on competitors in Europe and America. Now here’s a look at how the competition in Asia is responding.

Japan’s New Rocket-The H3

H3 Rocket Courtesy of Hunini CC BY-SA 4.0

Mitsubishi is developing a replacement for its H-2A/B series rockets. This new generation rocket, known as the H-3, is aiming to reduce launch costs by about 50% from current models. It will achieve this massive cost reduction through the use of greater automation in the manufacturing process of the rocket. JAXA is also in the early stages of testing vertical landing rocket technology similar to SpaceX’s Falcon 9, but this is only small-scale technology demonstrations for now.

China’s ChangZheng 8

Screen Capture Image credit: An image of China’s Changzheng 8 rocket landing

The ChangZheng 8 was originally planned on being a medium-lift rocket designed for Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO) missions. The design is based on the Changzheng 7, which first flew a few years ago, but has been modified to feature partial reusability, much like the Falcon 9. The YF-100 engines on the first stage will be modified to allow for deep throttling, landing legs and hyper-sonic grid fins will also be added. While ChangZheng 8 will likely be the first Chinese rocket to explore reusability. China, unlike Europe or Japan, is going all-in on reusable technology. China aims to have all of their rockets fully reusable by 2035, though it is unclear if this includes the ChangZheng 9 super heavy lift rocket. China is also developing a brand new human-rated spacecraft which aims to allow deep space exploration while also being reusable up to ten times.

India’s RLV

A Model of the RLV. Courtesy of Johnxxx9 CC BY-SA 3.0

The RLV, short for Reusable Launch Vehicle, is one of several technology demonstration projects underway at the the Indian Space Research organization (ISRO). The first technology demonstrator flew in 2016. The RLV is a Space Shuttle-like rocket upper stage that rides atop the first stage and lands horizontally onto an airstrip.

As it happens, ISRO is also separately researching Spacex-style vertical propulsive landing for the first stage as well. There is speculation that the technology developed with the RLV (reusable second stage) and reusable first stage could be combined into a fully reusable rocket around 2030.

Why it Matters

This is very exciting news for companies that require satellites for their business operations, as well as for consumers who will soon have greater access to the benefits that space provides. We can all share in the benefits these innovators provide us. SpaceX has opened the door to a new way of thinking about designing and building rockets, and this new thinking is quite literally igniting a revolution in space exploration technology around the globe.