Achieving the Holy Grail of Low-Cost Launch (UPDATED)

By Stew Magnuson

If there were one dollar for every time a government official at an industry conference said: “We have to reduce the cost of space launch,” then there would be enough money to — well — send a small bag of flour to the international space station — or maybe a jar of Tang.

Lofting objects into orbit is wildly expensive. Estimates are anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 per pound depending how far up the payload is going. Government officials once stated that lowering that figure to under $1,000 per pound would be ideal.

That was back in the beginning of the 2000s, when a newly made millionaire named Elon Musk had just sold his stake in PayPal. Only 31 years old, he could have taken his big pot of money and lived comfortably off it for the rest of his life on a private beach. Instead, he jumped into the highly risky business of building rockets.

Musk is a dreamer. And he dreamed of a day when mankind would colonize Mars. To make it there, the cost of space launch had to be reduced.

He founded SpaceX, and quickly began producing rockets that were indeed less expensive than the big competitors. He did so by building almost all the subcomponents in his Hawthorne, California, factory and cutting out the subcontractors.

That was more of a unique business plan than a technological breakthrough. What was needed were reusable rockets, he believed.

That was the original vision for the space shuttle: a space plane that would take off and land, then be ready to be used again after a short amount of time. The boosters that lofted the shuttle during its first two minutes parachuted into the ocean where they were recovered by NASA ships, then refurbished. The original vision for the program never came to pass. It took months to ready them for a follow-on mission and the cost of launching them skyrocketed.

The space launch business has undergone major disruption since the end of the shuttle program.

SpaceX and its rival Blue Origin, owned by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos, emerged from the private sector to develop their own engines. The space tourism industry spearheaded by Virgin Galactic is developing spacecraft as well. Composite materials and additive manufacturing promise to help reduce rocket manufacturing costs further.

Rather than operate another fleet of space planes, NASA has decided to turn this task over to the private sector, which is competing for launch services to the international space station with multi-stage rockets.

Meanwhile, the Air Force is doling out a series of contracts to companies large and small to develop a replacement for the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine. An examination of the contracts finds an overarching theme: reducing the cost of manufacturing the subcomponents.

Both SpaceX and Blue Origin have taken a page from the space shuttle program to develop reusable boosters. But instead of landing them in the sea, they are both trying to land them on platforms.

The last two months have seen several breakthroughs. The first came when Blue Origin launched its New Shepard booster 62 miles above Earth, then landed it on the ground. 

Then SpaceX, after incremental testing and some failures on an ocean-based platform, landed the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on the ground in December during a test at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It will continue to launch payloads and land the boosters on a platform at sea.

While rivals, both companies firmly believe that reusable rockets are the path to affordability and — by extension — the means to colonize Mars.

There is another way, though. The next logical step after the space shuttle was single-stage to orbit — in other words, no boosters or stages at all. The rocket engine and spacecraft are one. Lockheed Martin and NASA in the 1990s set out to build the X-33 space plane and spent some $1.3 billion between them to develop it.

They had made a lot of progress when the project was canceled in 2001. Technical problems arose with the liquid hydrogen tank, which had to be lighter than standard tanks in order to reduce the weight enough to reach orbit. The composite material and honeycomb design failed in a 1999 test. Three years after the X-33 was canceled, Northrop Grumman and NASA announced that they had achieved a breakthrough in composite liquid hydrogen fuel tank design.

Other single-stage-to-orbit concepts involved bypassing the denser, harder to breakthrough, lower atmosphere by giving rockets carrying small satellites a boost to the upper altitudes. AirLaunch had an idea to drop payloads out of the back of a C-17. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency paid the company for some successful demonstrations, but the idea never made it across the so-called Valley of Death, where ideas don’t find customers.

There were concepts for balloon launches and there are some still advocating for a space elevator, a tether strung between Earth and geo-stationary orbit.

But the single-stage-to-orbit trail has gone cold in the United States.

There is one active program in Great Britain. Reaction Engine Ltd. has garnered some European Space Agency funding to develop its space plane concept but needs a whole lot more capital to finish its work. British defense giant BAE Systems is clearly a believer. In November, it bought a 20 percent stake in the company and injected some 20 million pounds into the company.

As for U.S. development of a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle, one wonders how large of a technological leap it would be now that 15 years has passed.

Correction: A previous version of the story misidentified the location of the December SpaceX launch.

Topics: Space

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