Old government funded companies are in decline as the new generation of private launch providers enters the market. This time the focus is on efficiency. Let’s see what else do they bring to the table...
It was around 2001 when I read Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. It was written a year before humans first set foot on the moon, when the USA and USSR were already involved in a heated space race. The book describes the distant future of 2001. There are space hotels, manned flights to other planets and moons, and industrial and scientific missions all over the solar system. It was a reasonable thing to expect in 1968 because of the huge progress made in space-related technologies in under a decade. This progress was unfortunately made possible only by the whim of the two governments. That means it was only going to last until someone wins. When the USA won the race, the funds assigned to space programs dropped dramatically. In around 2001, when I read it, the things described in the book seemed to me even further away than I expect they did from the 1968 perspective.
Getting to space was always expensive, and the technology had to advance to a certain point before it becomes common. It seemed to me that we just have to wait and the technology eventually improves by itself. Luckily some people didn't think so.
Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, said: “People are mistaken when they think that technology just automatically improves. It does not automatically improve. It only improves if a lot of people work very hard to make it better, and actually, it will, I think, by itself degrade, actually.”
I wanted to read up a bit and share with you the current status of some companies which are starting to, or are already providing, rocket launching services starting with SpaceX.
It was 2015 when I first heard about SpaceX and before that I didn’t expect a private company could one day be involved in another space race. This time, the space race was different: it was simply a competition between companies in an open market.
SpaceX was founded in 2002 with the goal to dramatically reduce space transportation costs by introducing rocket reusability. Its ultimate mission is to enable the colonisation of Mars.
Rocket reusability is quickly becoming a reality as the first stage landings of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicles are starting to become routine. As of now, there were 19 landings of Falcon 9 first stage including three landings of previously flown and recovered first stages. This makes Falcon 9 the only operational partially reusable orbital launch system.
Next version of Falcon 9, called Block 5, is expected to be able to reuse the first stage 10 times with nothing but inspection between launches, and up to 100 times with refurbishing the first stage. First flights are likely to occur at the beginning of 2018.
Plans include the first test flight of Falcon Heavy which is scheduled in December 2017. Falcon Heavy is a variant of the Falcon 9 which consists of a strengthened Falcon 9 rocket core, with two additional Falcon 9 first stages as strap-on boosters. All three first stages will be reusable.
Falcon Heavy is also planned to be used as a launch vehicle for a private mission to fly to space tourists around the moon in late 2018 in SpaceX’ Dragon 2 spacecraft.
Another rocket currently in development is BFR which is planned to replace all SpaceX’ existing launch vehicles by the early 2020s. It will be used for multiple purposes: as a vehicle to Mars, for launching a large number of satellites at once, and earth to earth transportation. The rocket is planned to be fully reusable and thus have the lowest launch cost of any existing rocket while at the same time being the largest and most powerful rocket to have ever flown. If everything goes as planned, BFR could make space travel available to almost anyone, similar to airplane travel.
For further info about BFR check this interesting announcement Elon Musk held this September at International Astronautical Congress:
Another company is often mentioned as SpaceX’ main competitor due to their advances in reusability. Blue Origin was founded by Jeff Bezos in 2000: He is currently the richest man in the world as the owner of Amazon. In 2015 he started investing $1 billion yearly in Blue Origin which means the company doesn’t have to worry about being profitable for now. This means the company can take its time and use the incremental approach from suborbital to orbital flight.
Their current vehicle, the suborbital booster New Shepard, is appropriately named after the first American astronaut in space: Alan Shepard. In 2015, New Shepard reached outer space (100km height) before softly landing vertically on the pad. The same New Shepard booster reached outer space two more times in 2016 and was then launched once more for testing the passenger capsule. The first crewed test flights are planned to take place in early 2018, with the start of commercial service shortly after.
Their next launch vehicle, New Glenn, is named after another astronaut: John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. It is still in development, with initial test launch to occur before 2020. While New Shepard will be used for suborbital tourist flights, New Glenn should be able to compete with SpaceX’ Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles. It will also have a reusable first stage, designed for up to 100 reuses.
Blue Origin is now testing their new engine, the BE-4, to be used by New Glenn. This engine is also being developed for another US launch system operator, the United Launch Alliance. This brings us to the next private aerospace company.
United Launch Alliance (ULA) is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense, Space & Security. It was formed in 2006 for providing spacecraft launch services to the US government. Currently, those services are provided using three expendable launch systems – Delta II, Delta IV and Atlas V.
ULA held a monopoly on military launches until 2016 when SpaceX was awarded a GPS satellite contract. The entrance of private space companies, especially SpaceX, to the market, forced ULA to commit to building reusable launch vehicles and into substantial restructuring.
Currently, they are developing Vulcan rocket which will have a partially reusable first stage which will make the launches cost half as much as current Atlas V launches. It will use Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine and the first launch is expected to happen in 2019.
Another interesting thing about Vulcan rocket is that in 2015 ULA CEO, Tory Bruno, released a chart showing a potential future Vulcan Heavy three-core launch vehicle concept similar to Falcon Heavy with comparable lifting capacity.
The companies which were mentioned until this point have either been around for longer or had a wealthy founder to kick-start the financing of the rocket development. There are two more companies in the industry with billionaire founders and with similar launching strategies: Stratolaunch Systems and Virgin Orbit. Both of those companies are focusing on launching small satellites by using air launch to orbit system.
Stratolaunch Systems Corporation was founded in 2011 by Paul Allen and Burt Rutan. Paul Allen is the co-founder of Microsoft and Burt Rutan is the founder of Scaled Composites, a company which in 2004 launched the first manned privately funded spacecraft, SpaceShipOne. Stratolaunch Systems is developing a huge carrier airplane named Stratolaunch which will be able to carry up to three air-launched rockets. Stratolaunch carrier will rise to the height of around 9 km before releasing the rockets, which will then fire up their engines to haul the small satellites to LEO (Lower Earth orbit - altitude less than 2000km). Rockets launched this way are much cheaper than standard ground-launched rockets, and Stratolaunch, since it is an airplane, is completely reusable. Ground testing has already started, and the airplane is expecting to enter service in 2020.
The other air launch to orbit company, Virgin Orbit, is focused on launching small satellites of up to 200 kg into Sun-synchronous orbit. The company was formed in 2017 as a spin-off of Virgin Galactic, part of the Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.
While Stratolaunch systems uses Pegasus XL rockets developed by another aerospace company, Orbital ATK, Virgin Orbit is developing their own air-launched LauncherOne rocket which will launch from the height of around 10km after being carried there on a Boeing 747-400 plane. Launches are projected to begin in early 2018.
Although all mentioned companies are pushing for partial or full reusability, there are also ones just trying to make building rockets cheaper and faster. They achieve this by using 3D printing or by focusing only on light payloads up to several hundred kilograms.
One of those companies is Rocket Lab, which already has its Electron rocket flying. Founded by Peter Beck in 2006 in New Zealand, it’s the only rocket company in the world with its own launch complex.
There, they are currently testing the Electron rocket, designed for carrying small satellites into orbit. Most of the rocket is carbon fibre with 3D printed engines which can be printed in under 24 hours.
In the first test flight of the Electron rocket this May, the rocket reached space but didn’t reach the orbit due to ground equipment failure.
Another company which is taking 3D printing to the extreme is Relativity Space, founded in 2015 by Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone who were previously working at SpaceX and Blue Origin where they noticed that the majority of production costs is labour. They tackled the problem by using custom 3D printers which should eventually be able to print the entire rocket. The company is still in startup phase with first prototype flight aimed for 2021.
Another space launcher startup, Vector Space Systems was founded in 2016 and is focusing solely on launching small satellites which it also produces. Its launch vehicle Vector is developed to carry small satellites “naked” on the rocket. This is not the case on other, bigger launch vehicles which require small satellites to be inside their restrictive containers. This could enable larger solar arrays on the satellites and lesser rocket weight which will result in cheaper launches. Because the development of small satellites is measured in months instead of years, they plan to offer two types of services. One is the last minute service where customers can order launch vehicle with as little as 3 months notice, and the other is a cheaper service with longer notice. Although they're a young company, their focus on small satellites means they already expect to have 12 launches per year in 2019.
When private companies are involved it’s all about lowering the prices. The ways they try to achieve it differs. One of them is reusability (SpaceX, Blue Origin, ULA, Stratolaunch Systems) and another is efficiency which is achieved through 3D printing (Rocket Lab, Relativity Space) or focusing on small payloads (Vector Space Systems).
Not to give the wrong impression, SpaceX is currently in a large lead over the others. They are the only private company with an operational reusable orbital vehicle, which is, moreover, consistently conducting commercial missions. As the figure shows, SpaceX is taking over the commercial market and this isn’t going to change soon. Hopefully, other companies will deliver on their promises and in a couple of years we will have much more colourful graphs.
As every learning process involves failures, those failures work best when they hurt. The more they hurt, one is more motivated to improve. This is one of the reasons private companies will be, and already are, the main driver of progress in the space industry. It’s their money and losing it hurts them more than it would hurt government funded companies.