COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A new generation of small rockets may fulfill the Air Force’s goal of creating a market for low-cost launch. But after many fits and starts, the service and the launch industry realize that several roadblocks still stand in the way of success.
The Air Force has for more than 20 years been searching for ways to significantly cut the cost of launching satellites into space. The goal is to bring the cost down from several hundred million dollars to single-digit millions.
There was much excitement in the 1990s when three small rockets — the Pegasus, Taurus and Minotaur — were introduced. But infrequent launches squashed the chances for a low-cost launch market to develop.
Col. Jim Nugent, deputy division chief for responsive space at Air Force Space Command, says that the traditionally high cost of launch has led the Air Force to focus on “very capable and high density” satellites that are more expensive and longer-lived. These payloads don’t require frequent launches.
The Air Force is now looking to reinvigorate a market for low-cost launch, this time as part of a concept called operationally responsive space, or ORS.
Through ORS, the Air Force wants the ability to quickly launch satellites into orbit to replace old ones or to fill urgent military or intelligence needs.
“We continue to encourage small launch vehicles … the goal is to move that way,” Nugent says at the Space Foundation’s national space symposium here.
Several companies have eagerly entered into the business, hoping to find a viable solution for the Air Force’s requirements. But as some have discovered, it has been far more complicated than first envisioned.
One company, Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, has learned from early mistakes. Founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, SpaceX has so far attempted two test launches with its Falcon 1 small booster, but has been unable to reach orbit. Both tests were conducted as part of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program also called Falcon, which was created to find a vehicle that could deliver a 1,000-pound payload into low-earth orbit for under $5 million. SpaceX has also developed the Falcon 5 and Falcon 9 for medium and heavy lift missions, but is best known for its foray into the small launch business.
Company officials admit they may have gotten ahead of themselves while trying to quickly launch their rocket.
Gywnne Shotwell, vice president of SpaceX business development, says the company has learned that complex launch vehicles can’t be rapidly built. “We are a poster child for that.”
Shotwell notes that the company did not consider all the possible challenges, such as problems with range operations and system design. SpaceX originally planned to launch Falcon 1 in 2004 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., but the flight was grounded for fear that the small rocket would crash into a nearby billion-dollar satellite. Falcon 1 launch operations were relocated to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The company also realized how important it is to “design the system from the get-go with clear requirements,” Shotwell says.
SpaceX will attempt for the third time to reach orbit this month under an Air Force contract from the operationally responsive space office, located at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.
The company had to combine three payloads onto its rocket in the months leading up to the launch, after which the Air Force planned to choose the actual flight payload. Candidates included the Air Force Research Laboratory’s “plug-and-play” satellite bus, the SpaceDev Inc. Trailblazer spacecraft and an Air Force Office of Scientific Research nanosatellite.
SpaceX’s two-stage, liquid oxygen and kerosene powered Falcon 1 rocket costs $7.9 million, according to the latest company estimates. At the time of the first launch attempt in 2004, the price was pegged at $6.7 million.
After initial problems, the company now touts its vehicles as completely reliable.
“Falcon has the highest design reliability of any American launch vehicle family,” a company document distributed at the symposium says.
Despite a renewed confidence in its technology, SpaceX still has future lessons to learn, asserts Ronald Dittemore, president of ATK launch systems, and a former NASA engineer and space shuttle director.
One shortfall for SpaceX is its lack of experience, he says during a press conference announcing ATK’s new space systems division. ATK plans to develop its own small rocket.
“If you’ve been in this business for a lot of years, you understand where to look and where to go, where someone that’s coming in fairly new is bound to repeat what somebody else has also learned,” Dittemore comments.
But developing launch vehicles is not an easy task, and troubles associated with it are not unique to SpaceX, he adds.
“SpaceX is going to go through a learning period and others will too. The challenges in the launch vehicle market are what everyone’s experiencing. You have to understand the subtleness of the business or keep track by previous people’s lessons learned.”
That’s what ATK officials hope to figure out as they enter the burgeoning low-cost launch business. The company believes it can successfully build a small booster by developing it in a careful step-by-step process, Dittemore says. It conducted a sounding rocket test back in 2005 and is planning a sub-orbital launch this summer. It won’t attempt an orbital launch until 2010.
For the sub-orbital test, the company developed the ALV X-1, which is a 43,000-pound, two-stage rocket. It will carry a 3,000-pound payload, called HyBOLT (Hypersonic boundary layer transition), which is a NASA experiment created to test hypersonic flight data. For the orbital launch, ATK will develop a 160,000-pound, three-stage small rocket for orbital payloads and prompt global strike.
As part of the ORS concept, Air Force officials are interested in developing new capabilities as well as leveraging existing technology. Similarly, ATK wants to use current systems to save money and speed up integration, Dittemore says. “Use what you have already; don’t try to invent a better mousetrap.”
Another company, AirLaunch LLC, has developed a low-cost vehicle that doesn’t require a launch pad. The company’s QuickReach booster is horizontally launched from inside an unmodified C-17 or other large aircraft. The two-stage rocket features a liquid oxygen and propane powered propulsion system, says company president Debra Facktor Lepore.
AirLaunch was awarded a $17.8 million contract in 2005 to develop its QuickReach booster as part of the DARPA Falcon program, in which SpaceX also participated. AirLaunch was chosen last year as the sole contractor for the small launch vehicle program and was awarded an additional $7.6 million, Lepore says in an interview.
The company has completed two successful tests and is currently preparing for engine tests this summer, she says. AirLaunch plans to finish the final leg of the Falcon program in the fall, but has so far not received word from DARPA about a possible next step. The booster’s first launch is scheduled for 2010, but the company is not under contract to meet that date.
Several other companies have announced plans to pursue low-cost launch, including E’Prime Aerospace Corp., Lockheed Martin, Microcosm Inc., Space Systems/Loral, Garvey Spacecraft Corp. and Zig Aerospace, LLC, the Space Foundation report says. All of these companies — save for Lockheed Martin — have not yet announced launch dates.
Although more companies are joining the low-cost launch business, successful product development is still in question, government analysts say.
The Government Accountability Office repeatedly has highlighted the absence of a low-cost launch market. A recent report by Cristina Chaplain, GAO director of acquisition and sourcing management, says low-cost launch still lacks widespread government support.
“The ORS initiative is designed to help alleviate shortfalls in launch and testing resources, but one concern raised in interviews with launch providers was that there was still not enough investment being directed toward low-cost launch,” Chaplain writes.
Nugent agrees, saying that the biggest challenge for companies is the low-cost launch business case, or lack thereof. Because launches have been sporadic and infrequent, companies don’t yet have much incentive to jump on board.
Shotwell of SpaceX also pointed to this problem, saying that companies need more assurance from the government.
“Contracting has to be addressed for the commercial industry,” she asserts.
The Air Force is working to address these issues, Nugent says. “With the ORS office and other places in the Air Force, we’re trying to advance the method of buying. We encourage those providers.”
Nevertheless, companies need to keep in mind the inherent risk involved with launch, Nugent adds. “The risk of doing launch is always going to be a concern.”
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