Is This a Threat to SpaceX?
Jeff Bezos stole the limelight in late November when his Blue Origin aerospace company successfully launched its “New Shepard” rocket. The Blue Origin rocket reached space and then returned to Earth, successfully landing vertically, a feat Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been trying to achieve but has yet to succeed. The billionaire’s SpaceX company has tried to return its “Falcon 9” rockets to Earth intact, in order to achieve the all-important reusability aspect of Musk’s program.
Now, after its failed landings, SpaceX has decided to simply change the rules of the game. The next reusable rocket test landing will take place on land, rather than a platform at sea. The next attempt will be its third. (Will the third time be a charm?) SpaceX wants to use Cape Canaveral, which is operated by the U.S. Air Force (USAF), for this launch. The authorities have not yet approved the plan, because the Federal Aviation Administration is concerned that Cape Canaveral in Florida is located too close to the civilian population.
SpaceX has had a string of malfunctions in 2015, starting last January 10, when a Falcon rocket failed its landing due to a bad angle when approaching the barge, causing the rocket to explode. A month later, on February 11, in bad weather, SpaceX failed another landing test. On April 14, a strong crosswind tipped the vessel after it approached the barge successfully; it exploded.
Of course, SpaceX faced far more difficult constraints than Blue Origin, which simply sent a rocket up and landed it. Meanwhile, SpaceX has actually completed several International Space Station (ISS) resupply missions. Indeed, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket delivers supplies and puts satellites in orbit, so the extra weight in the rocket must be considered (not to mention the fuel load alone). Plus, the barge landing is subject to the vagaries of ocean currents.
Should This Terrify SpaceX?
However, Elon Musk’s space race is not just against Jeff Bezos; it is also against United Launch Alliance (ULA), which, rather than Silicon Valley billionaires, relies on The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA) and Lockheed Martin Corporation (NYSE:LMT), both adept at lobbying Congress for research funds. In addition, lately, ULA has demonstrated its reliability and continued strength.
On Sunday, the “Cygnus OA-4” mission set off successfully, thanks to ULA’s “Atlas V (401)” rocket, which took off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. This is the first of two launches in partnership with ULA, while the European space agency waits for an updated version of its “Antares” rocket, which will receive a new propulsion system.
The Russian “RD-180” powered ULA Atlas V has ferried 3.5 metric tons of materials and supplies for the astronauts aboard the ISS on behalf of NASA. The Cygnus is a module built by Thales Alenia Space (Thales-Finmeccanica) in Italy. As part of the load, there was a 3D printer made by Altran Italy, Thales Alenia Space, and the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), which will test the possibility of building spare parts and equipment in space.
The Cygnus spacecraft, built by Orbital with Thales Alenia Space, deployed its solar panels two hours after launch and started its rendezvous orbit with the ISS. “Everything’s gone the right way,” said Orbital’s president Frank Culbertson in the post-launch press conference.
The mission was a success from many points of view. It was the first launch of Cygnus’ larger capsule, which has been proven to handle a payload of more than three tons of material. Moreover, it was the first flight of Orbital after the accident at Antares in October 2014, when the rocket exploded shortly after taking off from the spaceport of Wallops Island, Virginia on its way to the ISS.
This was the fourth Cygnus launch; it was also no less than the 60th launch for the Atlas V rocket, which has accumulated an impressive record. The Atlas V is the latest evolution of the Atlas family, born in the sixties as a nuclear ballistic missile (ICBM). Since its entry into service in 2002, the Atlas V has accumulated an almost flawless record, having suffered only partial failure (due to the Centaur upper stage) once out of 60 launches. The next ULA rocket will be used to deploy a GPS satellite next February.
Yet despite its success, ULA is facing some resistance; the joint venture equally owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin recently said it would not participate in the tender for the launch of the new American “GPSII” satellite, scheduled for 2018, on behalf of the USAF. By default, the mission will be entrusted to Elon Musk.
New Cold War with Russia Has Held Back ULA
ULA is hampered by the limited availability of engines available for the Atlas V rocket, which uses the Russian “Energomash RD-180” thrusters, banned by the U.S. Congress in 2015 in retaliation to Russia’s dispute with Ukraine. The Russian thrusters were chosen in the 1990s, when the rocket was being developed.
In the 1990s, Lockheed Martin, which then lent its Atlas V experience to ULA, used the warmer relationship between President Boris Yeltsin’s Russia and the United States to buy the RD-180, an upgraded version of the “RD-170” engine that was fitted on Russia’s “Energiya” rocket, at a competitive (and government-subsidized) price.
The RD-180 embargo will officially begin in 2019. Until that date, ULA can rely on a limited number of engines, as set by Congress, each new fiscal year. The timing of the GPSII launch was outside that window because neither ULA partner, Boeing nor Lockheed, had all the components certified to assemble the carrier.
ULA has accelerated the development of a new carrier rocket, the “Vulcan,” which will use engines built in the United States (either made by Blue Origin, owned by Amazon.com, Inc. tycoon Jeff Bezos, or by Aerojet Rocketdyne) and is expected to fly in 2019.
ULA’s exit from the tender marks the end of the monopoly in the market for U.S. government launches. The default award goes to SpaceX, essentially marking the first instance of an American military mission assigned to anyone other than ULA, which originally won a contract to design and build the evolved expendable launch vehicle (EELV) from the Pentagon. The EELV program was intended to launch military missions at a pre-established price (the series, or block, of flights cost $11.0 billion for 36 missions in five years).
Space has become a lucrative business and it drew Elon Musk early on, eager as he was to get his hands on a big slice of the U.S. military pie. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has been validated and certified for government launches in May, to ULA’s annoyance. Nevertheless, ULA and the U.S. Air Force signed a contract worth $375 million for the supply of two rockets, an Atlas V 421 configuration and a “Delta IV Heavy,” to be delivered by 2019.