A booster rocket (or engine) is either the first stage of a multistage launch vehicle, or else a shorter-burning rocket used in parallel with longer-burning sustainer rockets to augment the space vehicle's takeoff thrust and payload capability. (Boosters used in this way are frequently designated "zero stages".) Boosters are traditionally necessary to launch spacecraft into low Earth orbit (absent a single-stage-to-orbit design), and are especially important for a space vehicle to go beyond Earth orbit. The booster is dropped to fall back to Earth once its fuel is expended, a point known as booster engine cut-off (BECO). The rest of the launch vehicle continues flight with its core or upper-stage engines. The booster may be recovered and reused, as was the case of the Space Shuttle.
The SM-65 Atlas rocket used three engines, one of which was fixed to the fuel tank, and two of which were mounted on a skirt which dropped away at BECO. This was used as an Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM); to launch the manned Project Mercury capsule into orbit; and as the first stage of the Atlas-Agena and Atlas-Centaur launch vehicles.
The Titan III, used by the United States Air Force as an unmanned heavy-lift vehicle, was developed from the Titan II launch vehicle by adding a pair of strap-on solid rocket boosters (SRB). It was also planned to be used for the Manned Orbital Laboratory program, cancelled in 1969. Strap-on boosters are sometimes used to augment the payload or range capability of military jet aircraft.
In a new development program initiated in 2011, SpaceX developed reusable first stages of their Falcon 9 rocket. After launching the second stage and the payload, the booster returns to launch site or flies to a drone ship and lands vertically. After landing multiple boosters both on land and on drone ships in 2015–2016, a landed stage was first reflown in March 2017: Rocket core B1021 that had been used to launch a re-supply mission to the ISS when new in April 2016 was subsequently used to launch the satellite SES-10 in March 2017. The program was intended to reduce launch prices significantly, and by 2018, SpaceX had reduced launch prices on a flight-proven boosters to US$50 million, the lowest price in the industry for medium-lift launch services.
By August 2019, the recovery and reuse of Falcon 9 boosters had become routine, with booster landings/recovery being attempted on more than 90 percent of all SpaceX flights, and successful landings and recoveries occurring 44 times out of 52 attempts. In total 22 recovered boosters have been refurbished and subsequently flown a second time by mid-2019, with several having been flown a third time as well.
Use in aviation
Rocket boosters used on aircraft are known as jet-assisted take-off (JATO) rockets.
Various missiles also use solid rocket boosters. Examples are:
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- Greicius, Tony (March 8, 2011). "Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter – Launch Vehicle Summary". US: NASA. Retrieved April 20, 2019.
- Grush, Loren (March 30, 2017). "SpaceX makes aerospace history with successful launch and landing of used rocket". The Verge. US. Retrieved April 15, 2017.
- Baylor, Michael (May 17, 2018). "With Block 5, SpaceX to increase launch cadence and lower prices". NASASpaceFlight.com. Archived from the original on May 18, 2018. Retrieved May 22, 2018.
Due to the Block 5’s reusability, SpaceX has lowered the standard price of a Falcon 9 launch from $62 million to about $50 million. This move further strengthens SpaceX’s competitiveness in the commercial launch market. In fact, even at the $62 million price point, SpaceX was already starting to win contracts that would have previously gone to competitors such as Arianespace.