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Taurus 2 illustration
Orbital plans to carry out the first launch of its Taurus II rocket, carrying a demonstration payload, by the end of this year. (credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.)

Launch industry transitions

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Much of the space community’s attention regarding launch vehicles has focused on two high-profile ventures: NASA’s announced design of the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket (see “A monster rocket, or just a monster?”, The Space Review, September 19, 2011) and SpaceX’s plans to develop a reusable version of its Falcon 9 rocket, with both stages designed to make powered vertical landings back at the launch site (see “An American fable”, The Space Review, October 10, 2011). Both certainly have the potential to significantly alter the space industry: the SLS could become the vehicle that take humans beyond Earth orbit for the first time since 1972—provided NASA can secure the long-term funding needed for its development—while the latter could radically alter the economics of spaceflight—if SpaceX can overcome the considerable technical challenges associated with reusability.

“Business is great,” SpaceX’s Shotwell said. “We are competitive in the world market, which is critical for a launch provider.”

However, developments in the launch industry go beyond concepts for heavy-lift and reusable rockets. The next few months alone will see, among other developments, the introduction of a new medium-class launch vehicle, the next flights of another new medium-class rocket, and the introduction of a venerable rocket in a new spaceport. These developments could make this year and next perhaps the most dynamic time in the launch industry since the Atlas V, Delta IV, and the upgraded ECA version of the Ariane 5 made their first flights nearly a decade ago.

In the case of SpaceX, most of its recent attention has been on both its recently-announced plan for a reusable Falcon 9 as well as its plan earlier this year to develop a heavy-lift version of that rocket, the Falcon Heavy. Those vehicles, though, are at least a few years away from their first flights. In the meantime, the company has plans to ramp up the launch rate of its Falcon 9 rocket, which has flown twice, most recently last December on the first of SpaceX’s three planned Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) flights. The next Falcon 9, on the next COTS mission (possibly a combination of its second and third planned missions), won’t launch before mid-December, and possibly not until January.

That flight rate will pick up in 2012 and beyond as SpaceX begins its series of Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) flights to the ISS as well as launching satellites for government and commercial customers. “Business is great,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said during a panel session of the AIAA Space 2011 conference last month in Long Beach, California. The company has a backlog of 36 Falcon 9 launches with options for six more, a backlog worth about $3.5 billion, she said. While NASA is a major customer, the company has won several contracts for launches of commercial satellites. “We are competitive in the world market, which is critical for a launch provider.”

SpaceX, though, has its eye on the lucrative military space market as well, one dominated for now by United Launch Alliance (ULA) and its Atlas and Delta rockets. On Friday, NASA, the Air Force, and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) announced a memorandum of understanding for what they call their “new entrant launch vehicle certification strategy”. While the announcement didn’t contain many details about that strategy, it was seen as evidence that the military in particular is interested in providing new competition for larger launch vehicles now exclusively provided by ULA.

SpaceX sees the announced strategy as a way to get their foot in the door for future procurements of military launches. “SpaceX welcomes the opportunity to compete for Air Force launches,” said Adam Harris, SpaceX’s vice president for government affairs, in a statement. “We are reviewing the MOU, and we expect to have a far better sense of our task after the detailed requirements are released in the coming weeks.”

SpaceX is anticipating enough launches that it’s looking beyond both its existing launch site at Cape Canaveral in Florida, as well as one at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California it started work on earlier this year. “We’re also working on a purely commercial site as well,” Shotwell said. “There’s been some speculation as to where, but there’s no question that we’re still looking for the right spot to put a purely commercial launch site.” That “speculation” refers to media reports in the last few months that suggested that SpaceX was looking at locations from Hawaii to Puerto Rico to the Gulf Coast of Texas.

SpaceX developed the Falcon 9 in part with NASA funds from its COTS award. The other company with a funded COTS agreement, Orbital Sciences Corporation, is moving forward with plans to launch its own new medium-class rocket, the Taurus II. Orbital had planned to carry out that inaugural launch, its sole demonstration mission under its COTS award, in late 2010, but like SpaceX, suffered schedule slips. Its problems have included delays completing the infrastructure at its new launch site at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Virginia, as well as a fire during a test of an AJ-26 engine—two of which power the Taurus II’s first stage—in June at NASA’s Stennis Space Center.

“The original motivation for the Taurus II was to be a successor to the Delta II in terms of performance,” Hamel said.

Those issues, Orbital officials say, are largely behind them. “We’re about 30 days out from accepting the pad,” Michael Hamel, senior vice president of Orbital, said at the late-September AIAA Space 2011 panel. A “hot fire” on the pad is planned for November or December and, if that goes as planned, the first launch will take place by the end of the year. That launch will not be its COTS mission but instead a demonstration flight, carrying an instrumented replica of Orbital’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft in order to document the launch environment. If successful, the COTS launch would take place in the first quarter of 2012.

Orbital is focusing the Taurus II principally on ISS cargo flights in the near term, but has greater long-term ambitions for the vehicle. Hamel said Orbital is planning upgrades to improve the performance of the Taurus II. Orbital is also looking at potential West Coast launch sites for the rocket, including Vandenberg and Alaska’s Kodiak Launch Complex, in order to support launches into sun-synchronous and other high-inclination orbits.

“The original motivation for the Taurus II was to be a successor to the Delta II in terms of performance,” Hamel said, something that predated Orbital’s participation in COTS. “We think Taurus II will be able to fill that niche in lift capability overall.”

Orbital is planning to fill that niche based on the assumption that the Delta II is about to retire. Only one more Delta II launch is currently planned: the launch of NASA’s NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) satellite from Vandenberg, scheduled for October 27. While the Delta II has been a reliable launch vehicle, it’s also become a relatively expensive one for NASA, given limited commercial interest and the Air Force’s decision to use larger Atlas V and Delta IV rockets for its missions.

ULA, though, is not ready to give up on the Delta II just yet. “The Delta II is still in the market,” said Michael Gass, president and CEO of ULA, at the AIAA Space 2011 panel. “We’re hoping, actually, any day to hear from NASA to basically onramp that capability back onto the NLS [NASA Launch Services] II contract.” A few days after the panel, NASA confirmed it had added Delta II onto that contract, permitting up to five more Delta II launches, the remaining inventory of the vehicle.

Another classic launch vehicle is finding new life in a new locale. This Thursday morning a Soyuz rocket will lift off for the first time from the European spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana, carrying two Galileo navigation satellites. The European Space Agency (ESA) partnered with Russia to build a Soyuz launch complex in Kourou to give Europe a medium-class launch capability to complement its own larger Ariane 5. From Kourou, Soyuz will be able to launch the smaller end of the commercial geosynchronous satellite market as well as Galileo and other nongeosynchronous satellites. “We’re very excited to be introducing Soyuz down there,” Clay Mowry, president of Arianespace Inc., said at AIAA Space 2011.

Joining Ariane 5 and Soyuz in Kourou is the Vega small launch vehicle, whose first launch is now scheduled for early 2012. With the addition of Vega, Arianespace will be able to offer a full range of launch services for everything from small satellite to launch communications satellites and even missions to the ISS with the ATV cargo spacecraft.

“Are there too many rockets? Yes,” Mowry said. “It does appear to be that there’s a lot more rockets out there than payloads.”

Vega will join a crowded market at the small end of the launch vehicle spectrum, one where supply outstrips demand. SpaceX discovered that in the last year, when it took its original launch vehicle, the Falcon 1, off the market, citing a lack of customer interest (see “New opportunities for smallsat launches”, The Space Review, August 22, 2011). “We were really hoping that the small satellite market would be more robust,” Shotwell said. “We’ll reassess the market in early 2012.” In the meantime SpaceX is offering smallsat launch opportunities as secondary payloads on its Falcon 9.

Orbital, meanwhile, says it still plans to keep its Taurus XL rocket on the market despite back-to-back failures of launches carrying NASA science satellites; each was lost when the rocket’s payload fairing failed to separate properly. “We’ve largely focused on supporting the NASA customer, and so long as they wish to continue to support their missions with that vehicle, we will continue to deliver those,” Hamel said. However, he added that given the limited demand for the rocket, they have been investigating alternatives, including a “commercially-based” version of the Minotaur rocket, using new rocket motors instead of surplus ICBM motors as those vehicles currently use.

The concern about being more vehicles than payloads has been a long-running concern throughout the industry. “Are there too many rockets? Yes,” Mowry said. “It does appear to be that there’s a lot more rockets out there than payloads,” raising concerns about reliability for those rockets that don’t fly frequently.

“The solution set for the medium market is plentiful,” Gass said. “Right now the market doesn’t even sustain one vehicle, let alone multiple vehicles.”

Complicating matters on the global market is that commercial demand alone doesn’t dictate which vehicles survive and which go out of service. “Launch is a strategic capability of nations, and that’s why nations invest in the capability,” Mowry said. “The market’s really not large enough to support everyone, particularly on the infrastructure side,” he added, citing the costs to maintain not just launch vehicle systems but launch facilities as well.

While companies are optimistic about the near term, the shifts in the industry, both in terms of new vehicles and changes in the markets, create more uncertainty about the future. “The manifest for the next two to three years is just as robust as before,” said Gass, but acknowledged that the market beyond that is uncertain. “You can’t use today,” he said, “as a prediction of the future.”