Pri­vate firms re­vive big rock­ets

Star­tups, govern­ments see fu­ture in satellites, space flights

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM -


It’s been 44 years since the mighty Saturn V last thun­dered sky­ward from a launch pad at Kennedy Space Cen­ter in Florida. The tow­er­ing rocket, gen­er­at­ing enough power to lift 269,000 pounds into orbit, had been the work­horse of the Apollo moon mis­sions.

Later this year, SpaceX plans to launch its most pow­er­ful rocket yet from the same pad. The long-awaited Fal­con Heavy is key to the Cal­i­for­nia com­pany’s plans to get more de­fense busi­ness, send tourists around the moon and launch its first un­manned mis­sion to Mars.

But un­like the Saturn V, the Fal­con Heavy will have plenty of com­pe­ti­tion.

Years in the works and the prod­uct of hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars of in­vest­ments, a new generation of huge rock­ets will soon take off. Their man­u­fac­tur­ers range from space star­tups to aerospace gi­ants to the space agen­cies of the United States, Rus­sia and China.

Be­cause of ad­vances in fuel, ma­te­ri­als and elec­tron­ics, the new rock­ets, while smaller than some of the Space Age beasts, may be more ef­fi­cient and cost-ef­fec­tive. They will be able to hoist big spy satellites to a high orbit or ferry crews into space.

The rush of new rock­ets has prompted some to ques­tion whether NASA even needs to build its own big new space ve­hi­cle — and whether there will be enough launch busi­ness to go around.

Af­ter years of a monopoly, the lu­cra­tive busi­ness of

● launch­ing sen­si­tive na­tional se­cu­rity satellites is now com­pet­i­tive. But at the same time, the launch de­mand for large satellites is not ex­pected to change.

And in the case of SpaceX, the work­horse Fal­con 9 rocket — which re­cently com­pleted its 10th mis­sion of the year — has been up­graded to the point where it can han­dle heav­ier loads than orig­i­nally ex­pected.

Whereas SpaceX first thought that it would fly the same num­bers of Fal­con 9s as Fal­con Heavys, it is turn­ing out that Fal­con 9s will have two to three times as many com­mer­cial mis­sions. The com­pany’s May launch of the In­marsat-5 F4 satel­lite on a Fal­con 9 was orig­i­nally planned for a Fal­con Heavy.

“There is a part of the com­mer­cial mar­ket that re­quires Fal­con Heavy,” said Gwynne Shotwell, pres­i­dent of SpaceX. “It’s there, and it’s go­ing to be con­sis­tent, but it’s much smaller than we thought.”

SpaceX says the price of a Fal­con Heavy launch will be at least $90 mil­lion, ver­sus $62 mil­lion for its Fal­con 9.

That hasn’t de­terred rocket mak­ers.

Last year, Ama­ Inc. Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Jeff Be­zos an­nounced a plan for a heavy-lift rocket called New Glenn to be built by his space firm, Blue Ori­gin. The rocket, which will have twostage and three-stage ver­sions, was de­signed to launch com­mer­cial satellites and to take hu­mans into space.

United Launch Al­liance, a joint ven­ture of Lock­heed Martin Corp. and Boe­ing Co., has pro­posed a new rocket called the Vul­can, which would even­tu­ally re­place its cur­rent in­ter­me­di­ate- and heavy-lift ve­hi­cles.

Or­bital ATK Inc. — a com­mer­cial aerospace firm in Dulles, Va., that in­cludes for­mer di­vi­sions of Al­liant Tech­sys­tems — in­tends to ex­pand its lineup with its first in­ter­me­di­ate and heavy-lift rock­ets, known for now as the Next Generation Launcher.

Europe’s Ari­anes­pace al­ready can use its Ari­ane 5 heavy launcher to take two large satellites into space.

While rock­ets may look sim­i­lar on liftoff, their mak­ers can be se­lec­tive in the con­tracts they tar­get.

SpaceX has tried to com­pete for nearly all types of launches, but Or­bital ATK seems to be fo­cus­ing on the ex­treme ends of the mar­ket — small and large pay­loads, said Carissa Chris­tensen, chief ex­ec­u­tive of con­sult­ing firm Bryce Space and Tech­nol­ogy.

“The launch mar­ket is com­pli­cated and so spe­cial­ized that all of those play­ers could find a niche,” she said.

The U.S. govern­ment and its con­trac­tors have a long his­tory of de­vel­op­ing large rock­ets. That in­cludes the Saturn V, the largest and most pow­er­ful rocket ever flown suc­cess­fully, and United Launch Al­liance’s Delta IV Heavy, the most pow­er­ful rocket cur­rently used by the Air Force to carry na­tional se­cu­rity satellites to orbit.

The heavy-lift launch­ers of to­mor­row would take ad­van­tage of key de­vel­op­ments in com­pos­ite ma­te­ri­als, elec­tron­ics and other tech­nolo­gies.

The first-stage booster of United Launch Al­liance’s pro­posed Vul­can rocket, for ex­am­ple, could be pow­ered by BE-4 en­gines un­der de­vel­op­ment by Blue Ori­gin that run on oxy­gen-rich staged com­bus­tion of liq­ue­fied nat­u­ral gas and liq­uid oxy­gen. Those en­gines will also be used in Blue Ori­gin’s New Glenn heavy-lift rocket.

Not all the tech­nol­ogy is com­pletely cut­ting edge. The core stage of NASA’s Space Launch Sys­tem ve­hi­cle will use four RS-25 en­gines — relics from the space shut­tle pro­gram that are be­ing retro­fit­ted with new con­trollers that are smarter and lighter than past com­put­ers.

NASA al­ready had 14 en­gines that had pre­vi­ously flown on the space shut­tle and enough ma­te­rial to make two new en­gines, said Jim Paulsen, vice pres­i­dent of NASA pro­grams at Aero­jet Rock­et­dyne, which makes the en­gines. The com­pany will per­form tests on the en­gines to make sure that ev­ery­thing is run­ning prop­erly be­fore be­ing tested as a core stage.

Reusing parts af­ter launch has changed the con­ver­sa­tion about rocket eco­nomics, and it could be a fac­tor in knock­ing down prices of the big rock­ets too, if there is enough de­mand. Both Blue Ori­gin and SpaceX de­signed their first-stage boosters to be able to land af­ter launch.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said the Fal­con Heavy will at­tempt to land its two side boosters — which on its de­mon­stra­tion flight will be reused first stages from pre­vi­ous mis­sions — as well as its cen­ter core booster in a kind of “syn­chro­nized aerial bal­let.”

Shotwell said the com­pany is work­ing to see if it can bring the side boosters back to land, which would re­quire over­haul­ing its land­ing zone at Cape Canaveral. SpaceX may also need to build more drone ships if the com­pany chooses to land the side boosters at sea, she said.

Or­lando Sen­tinel/RED HU­BER

A SpaceX Fal­con 9 rocket car­ry­ing sup­plies and ex­per­i­ments sits on launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Cen­ter in Florida in June.

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