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F9 hovering above ocean
A frame from a video released by SpaceX in August showing a Falcon 9 first stage slowing to a stop just above the ocean surface after the launch of six ORBCOMM satellites in July. Demonstrations like this have led SpaceX to try and land the first stage on a floating platform on the company’s next launch. (credit: SpaceX)

Disruption and destruction in the launch business

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One of the most popular buzzwords in the commercial space business—or business in general, for that matter—is “disruption.” The term is linked to the book The Innovator’s Dilemma, published in the late 1990s by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. Shorthand for “disruptive innovation,” it’s the idea that established companies can be disrupted by new technologies that emerge at the bottom of a market and would otherwise be ignored by those larger companies, who focus on incremental improvements of their existing technologies to meet the needs of current customers. The disruptors—like makers of personal computers and cellular telephones—can quickly move up the market, eventually offering similar performance to established companies at lower prices.

“For the upcoming launch, I think we’ve got a chance of landing on a floating platform,” Musk said.

Some see that disruption happening today in the launch market, in large part because of SpaceX. That company started in the small end of the market with the Falcon 1, but has moved up over the years towards larger and more lucrative markets, challenging established launch companies in the United States and overseas. (SpaceX is arguably not the only disruptor in the launch market: Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace are using suborbital spaceflight as a step towards low-cost orbital launch, while secretive Blue Origin is apparently looking at both suborbital and orbital launch.) But are what SpaceX and others doing to shake up the market really disrupting the overall market?

SpaceX’s quest for reusability

SpaceX certainly has the appearances of a disruptive force on the launch business. Rather than start from the beginning by going after established commercial and government and commercial markets, like high-value communications and military spacecraft, SpaceX started small. It took advantage of—and arguably helped create—new markets like commercial cargo delivery to the International Space Station. Even if its vehicles didn’t have the same performance of an Ariane, Atlas, or Delta, it won customers interested in the low launch costs it promised: about $60 million today for a Falcon 9.

SpaceX is moving up-market, like a disruptive company would be expected to do: its Falcon Heavy vehicle, with an inaugural launch planned for next year, will have a larger payload capacity than any other vehicle in operation today, but at a potentially significantly lower cost. But the company has also said it’s working on a reusable version of its existing Falcon 9, one that would likely offer less payload capacity than the current version, but at potentially a significantly lower cost.

That reusability effort has seen some successes—and failures—in recent months. On two Falcon 9 launches earlier this year, the company attempted to “land” the first stage after stage separation on the ocean surface. In both cases, SpaceX said it was able to bring the stage to zero velocity at the ocean surface, although both times the stage toppled after “landing” and broke apart. However, in August, a version of a Falcon 9 first stage, called F9R-Dev1, used to test landings on land, exploded in midair above the company’s test site near McGregor, Texas.

Despite that failure, the company’s founder said SpaceX is ready to move to the next step in its reusability efforts. Elon Musk, speaking in an on-stage interview Friday at a symposium marking the centennial of MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (aka AeroAstro) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said SpaceX would attempt to land the Falcon 9 first stage on its next mission, this time on an platform in the ocean.

“For the upcoming launch, I think we’ve got a chance of landing on a floating platform,” Musk said, when asked by AeroAstro department chairman Jaime Peraire about SpaceX’s reusability efforts. “We actually have a huge platform that’s being constructed in a shipyard in Louisiana right now.” That platform, he said, is about 90 meters long and 50 meters wide.

That platform—which SpaceX had not previously disclosed the development of—will position itself in the ocean, using its engines to maintain its location against ocean currents to provide a stable landing spot for the stage. “We’re going to try to land on that on the next flight, and if we land on that, then I think we’ll be able to refly that booster,” he said.

He didn’t specify what that “next flight” was, but accordingly available manifests, SpaceX is scheduled to launch its next commercial cargo mission to the ISS no earlier than December 9. SpaceX has previously used those cargo missions to perform reusability experiments, taking advantage of excess vehicle performance available on those missions.

“I don’t expect the Falcon 9 to have a reusable upper stage,” Musk said. “With a kerosene-based system, the specific impulse isn’t really high enough to do that.”

It is, though, an experiment, Musk cautioned. “It’s probably maybe not more than a 50 percent chance, or less, of landing it on the platform for the first time,” he said. “But there’s a lot of launches that will occur over the next year. There’s at least a dozen launches that will occur over the next 12 months. I think it’s quite likely—probably 80 to 90 percent likely—that one of those flights will be able to land and refly.”

Ultimately, SpaceX wants to return the first stage not to a floating platform but back on land, near the launch site. “But before we boost back to the launch site and try to land there, we need to show that we can land with precision over and over again,” he said. “Otherwise, something bad could happen.”

Landing on a floating platform, though, introduced complications of its own that go beyond the technical issues of building a platform and landing on it. In 2010, Blue Origin filed a patent titled “Sea landing of space launch vehicles and associated systems and methods.” That patent, formally published earlier this year, covers the recovery of a first stage of a launch vehicle on “the deck of a pre-positioned sea-going platform.”

SpaceX, though, is seeking to challenge that patent. In August, the company filed a petition for review of the patent, arguing there was prior art describing such a system long before Blue Origin filed its patent application. That includes a 1998 paper published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics that described landing the first stage of a multi-stage reusable launch vehicle on a floating platform.

While Musk didn’t mention the patent dispute in his MIT interview, he did indicate the company was backing away from plans to make the Falcon 9 fully reusable. When the company disclosed its reusability plans in 2011, it showed a video that depicted both the first and second stages returning to Earth. While the first stage landed in much the same way as the company now plans to eventually recover it, the second stage would reenter after deploying its payload, the top end covered with a heat shield. The second stage would then deploy landing legs and touch down on a pad, like the first stage.

Musk, in Friday’s interview, indicated that SpaceX wasn’t pursuing a reusable second sage for the Falcon 9. “I don’t expect the Falcon 9 to have a reusable upper stage,” he said. “With a kerosene-based system, the specific impulse isn’t really high enough to do that.” He added that it would be difficult to recover the stage on missions to deploy satellites in geostationary orbit.

However, he indicated a future generation of launch vehicles will be designed to reuse all its stages. “The next generation vehicles after the Falcon architecture will be designed for full reusability,” he said. Those vehicles will use “densified methalox” propulsion, liquid methane and oxygen cooled to near their freezing points, which will provide additional performance.

Those vehicles, though, are still well into the future. “I think we could start to see some test flights in the five- to six-year timeframe,” he said.

Reusability skeptics

Despite the progress SpaceX has made on reusability, many others in the launch industry remain skeptical that a reusable launch vehicle—one either partially or entirely reused—is likely in the near future.

“Reusability is very difficult,” Tshudy said. “I think we’re much further than four to five years off.”

“I think it’s a long ways off. It’s incredibly hard,” said Kurt Eberly, senior director of engineering and deputy program manager for Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket. Speaking at a panel during the Third Space and Satellite Regulatory Colloquium in Washington on Thursday, he suggested reusability could eventually be viable for geostationary orbit launches, given the volume of launches flying the same trajectory. “It’s going to take beyond five years to get all that working.”

Tom Tshudy, vice president and general counsel for International Launch Services (ILS), which markets Proton launches, concurred. “Reusability is very difficult,” he said. “I think we’re much further than four to five years off.”

Tshudy, who worked on the Delta Clipper program at McDonnell Douglas in the early 1990s, seemed dismissive of what SpaceX had achieved in its reusability testing to date using a vertical takeoff and landing vehicle called Grasshopper. “A lot of the same things that I see the SpaceX Grasshopper program doing we were doing in the early ’90s with the Delta Clipper,” he said on the same panel.

A third panelist, Arianespace Inc. president Clay Mowry, was a little more optimistic about the prospects of reusability, citing work by both SpaceX and Blue Origin. “It’s probably four to five years off at a minimum,” he said. However, he raised questions about how many times such vehicles could be reflown, and other operational issues. “What kind of work, what kind of touch labor, what kind of business model are you going to put into place to refurbish it to get somebody confident enough you can fly this again?”

Even if other launch companies are skeptical of the near-term prospects for reusability, they acknowledge that SpaceX has shaken up the commercial launch market in the last few years.

“There’s been a destructive force coming into the market, it’s SpaceX, and it’s requiring us all to take a look at how we do business,” said Tshudy.

Tshudy might have meant to call SpaceX “disruptive,” but both terms may still apply. In August, ILS announced it was laying off staff and anticipated that, going forward, it would do three to four commercial Proton launches a year, rather than the eight it had averaged in the past.

“We’re responding to the bell,” he said, citing plans in Russia to invest more than one billion dollars to modernize Proton manufacturing to improve quality—a key issue, given several Proton failures in recent years on domestic, rather than commercial, missions—and to reduce costs.

ILS has not been the only company to suffer in this disrupted launch environment. Sea Launch announced plans in August, a few weeks after ILS’s announcement, to reduce staff and to lay up the seagoing vessels it uses. It plans to return to service “during mid-2015/mid-2016 time frame,” the company said.

Even Arianespace, the leader in the commercial launch industry, has been feeling the effects of changes in the industry. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and there’s never been a time as exciting as it is right now in the launch business,” Mowry said. “There are so many things going on in launch. There are a lot of disruptive forces.”

While its Ariane 5 rocket has an unbroken streak of successful launches extending back more than a decade, Arianespace has recognized the need to be more cost competitive with companies like SpaceX. Its solution is the Ariane 6, a next-generation launch vehicle awaiting formal approval for development by the European Space Agency.

“We’re getting there on the Ariane 6,” Mowry said in a talk at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) in Las Cruces, New Mexico, on October 15. A final decision, he said, is expected at the December meeting of European space ministers.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and there’s never been a time as exciting as it is right now in the launch business,” Mowry said. “There are so many things going on in launch. There are a lot of disruptive forces.”

“The idea is to use a building-block approach with solid boosters that could be taken and used on the Vega launch vehicle down the road,” he said at ISPCS, referring to Europe’s small launch vehicle. In the larger configuration, known as the Ariane 64, the vehicle could place up to 11 metric tons into geostationary transfer orbit, more than the Ariane 5 can do today. “We have a path forward, and hopefully we’re going to get the funding through ESA. The idea is to have that system ready in 2019 or 2020 to compete in the commercial marketplace.”

That timeframe would coincide with what Musk said Friday would be the initial tests of a SpaceX’s fully reusable successor to the Falcon launch vehicle. Depending on what that vehicle turns out to be, it’s possible that SpaceX could soon thereafter have a vehicle similar in performance to at least some versions of the Ariane 6, but at potentially much lower costs.

“If we have rockets that are full reusable and could get to a decent flight rate,” Musk said at MIT, “the potential is there to get to a two order of magnitude reduction in the cost of space transport.” That would certainly qualify as a disruptive innovation.