To get into a 200 km orbit, a two stage rocket generally has a first stage which burns for about 150 seconds, followed by a second stage which burns for around 500 seconds. Second stage engines deliver much more impulse per dollar, primarily because the engine burns so much longer, and also because the engine has a larger expansion ratio and so a higher specific impulse.
The second stage burn time cannot be extended greatly beyond 500 seconds when going to low earth orbit, because the initial acceleration becomes so low that the stage falls back to earth before it achieves orbital velocity. Similarly, the first stage burn time cannot be pushed much past 150 seconds (assuming LOX/kerosene, for which the Isp is around 300 seconds) because the rocket must start with significantly more than 1 G of acceleration to get off the ground. This is easy to see: if initial acceleration is exactly 1 G, and the vehicle was all fuel and no structure, then the burn time would be exactly the Isp.
The point of a three stage rocket is to significantly extend the first LOX/kerosene stage burn time, and improve the expansion ratio, with the use of an earlier and much cheaper stage. To yield a cost improvement, the entire new stage must cost less than the first stage engines it is replacing. Also, the development cost of the new stage must be low.
Typically, strap-on solid rocket motors are used as cheap extra launch thrust on American or European launchers. LOX/Kerosene launchers, such as the SpaceX Falcon series and many of the Russian launchers, are so cheap that such solid rockets and their handling and cleanup are too expensive to help. I suspect that steam rockets (such as the rocket that hurled Evil Kneivel's "motorcycle" over the Snake River Canyon) may be cheap enough. Unfortunately, steam rockets have such low specific impulse (about 50 seconds) that any benefit must come from just a few hundred m/s of delta-V (realistically, around 300 m/s). The rest of this post will show that there is a very large benefit to having just a few hundred m/s of initial boost.
One way to measure the benefit of the extra stage zero is to compare the payload of a similarly priced rockets, one with and without the extra stage. Ideally, the rockets would be seperately optimized, but that makes cost comparisons looser. Instead, we will imagine that they have the same engines and differ in smaller details like expansion ratio and tank size. The baseline rocket I have chosen is the SpaceX Falcon 1, which is promised to take 570 kg to a 200km orbit for $6.7M. My simulations show SpaceX has a significant sandbag in there, and that the rocket might deliver 670 kg at the edge of its performance envelope, and it is this larger number that I compare against when calculating the benefit of extra boost.
The first comparison is between a series of identical Falcons, some with a stage zero delivering various burnout velocities, and one without. As shown, a 300 m/s boost allows the three-stage rocket to lift 41% more payload.
Because a three stage Falcon does not require it's LOX/kerosene engines to lift it off the ground, the engines can be configured for larger expansion and higher vacuum Isp (and thus lower sea-level Isp). Elon Musk at SpaceX has claimed that a vacuum-optimized Merlin would deliver 340 seconds Isp. In the table below, I've assumed 330 seconds, and a drop in sea-level Isp to 190. Now the three-stage 300 m/s boost lifts 61% more mass to orbit. This change carries the reliability penalty that the engines may have to be started in flight to avoid thrust instability due exit pressure being much less than sea level pressure. Note that a Falcon with no stage zero boost cannot get off the ground with higher expansion engines.
The full gain of the stage zero is realized by extending the burn time of the first LOX/kerosene stage by extending the tanks. Here I've assumed that the extra tankage and pressurant and so on weighs 4.3% of the extra propellant added. With extended tanks, the three stage 300 m/s boost lifts 138% more mass to orbit.
|LEO||extra stage 1|
You might wonder if these massive payload increases require the use of a bigger and more powerful upper stage. The answer is no, even hefting a 1595 kg payload, the existing falcon upper stage delta-V drops from 4973 to 3454 m/s. I did not look at moving propellant from the lower stage to the upper stage, which might improve the payload numbers a bit more.
138% is a large payload increase, but we have to compare this to the cost of simply scaling up an existing rocket. Fortunately, SpaceX has done some of this work for us. Interpolating between their prices, the 138% payload boost might be sold for $1.8M more.
Which leaves the question, can a suitable steam rocket be built to heave the Falcon 1 to 300 m/s straight up for less than $1.8M per shot, and minimal development costs?
Here's what you'd need:
A 12600 kg welded stainless steel tank might cost $250,000, but can probably be recovered and reused with minimal work. I'm going to claim the expensive bit isn't the flight hardware, but rather the ground support, and I'll get to that in another post.