U.S. Launch Companies at Crossroads in 2014

Cygnus is released from the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)
Cygnus is released from the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Part 2 of 2

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

Editor’s Note: In Part 1, we took a look at the highly successful year that all three U.S. launch providers had in 2013.  Today, we will look at the challenges ahead for each company.

Coming off a stellar year, each of America’s three launch providers — Orbital Sciences Corporation, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA) — finds itself in a distinctly different place and facing unique challenges. The coming year could begin to significantly remake the global launch market, with significant consequences for all three players and rival providers overseas.


Falcon 9 lifts off with the SES-8 satellite. (Credit: SpaceX)
Falcon 9 lifts off with the SES-8 satellite. (Credit: SpaceX)

With two flights of the upgraded Falcon 9 v. 1.1 rocket and the first communications satellite launch under its belt in 2013, all the pieces are now in place for Elon Musk’s company to begin working through its long manifest of commercial and government satellites.

SpaceX’s main goal for 2014 is to launch roughly one Falcon rocket per month. Increasing the production and launch rates while maintaining quality will be a major challenge for the rapidly growing company, which has never launched more than three rockets in a calendar year.

If SpaceX succeeds,  the company will undoubtedly book additional orders for its low-cost launch vehicle. That success would further threaten domestic launch providers and competitors in Europe, Russia, China and Ukraine. However, failures could stop the company’s substantial momentum in its tracks.

In addition to increasing its launch rate, SpaceX has five other significant goals for 2014. One key objective is to become certified to compete for U.S. military and intelligence launch contracts over which ULA now has a monopoly.  The company needs to successfully launch three of its upgraded Falcon 9 rockets and to meet a series of technical requirements and reviews to become certified.

SpaceX says it expects to get credit for the first two Falcon 9 v. 1.1 flights it conducted at the end of this year. The Air Force will decide in early 2014 whether the September flight during which the second stage failed to re-light in orbit will count toward certification. The re-light is necessary to place satellites into medium, high and geosynchronous orbits.

Falcon Heavy (Credit: SpaceX)
Falcon Heavy (Credit: SpaceX)

A second objective is to be able to recover and reuse a Falcon 9 first stage.  Achieving this goal would be a major breakthrough in SpaceX’s efforts to significantly reduce the costs of orbital launches. The company’s eventual goal is to recover both the first and second stages for re-launch.

A fully-reusable Falcon 9 would shake the global launch market to its core and render other launch vehicles uncompetitive on price. It could take a number of years before any other launch provider could duplicate that capability. The world space community would find itself in completely uncharted seas.

This year could see the maiden test flight of SpaceX’s most ambitious program to date, the Falcon Heavy. The rocket consists of three Falcon 9 first stages with 27 Merlin 1-D engines strapped together with a single upper stage. Designed to lift up to 53,000kg (116,845 lb) into low Earth orbit, Falcon Heavy would be the most powerful rocket in the world.

The Falcon Heavy would provide SpaceX with a capability that no one else in the world could rival. Once certified, it would allow the company to loft the military’s largest spacecraft to geosynchronous orbit and to send substantial payloads into deep space.

SpaceX’s fourth goal is to decide on a location for a spaceport that would be devoted solely to its own commercial launches. Although the company has looked at locations in several states and Puerto Rico, the odds-on favorite is a Gulf Coast location south of Brownsville, Texas. SpaceX is awaiting the results of a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) environmental review before making a decision.

Finally, SpaceX will learn this year whether it will receive NASA funding to continue developing its Dragon spacecraft for human flights under the Commercial Crew Program. It is competing with the CST-100 capsule from Boeing and the Dream Chaser lifting body space plane being developed by Sierra Nevada Corporation.

The current round of funding ends in August, and NASA expects to decide on the next round sometime in 2014. The cash strapped agency likely doesn’t have sufficient funds to continue funding all three projects. It might fully fund two systems, make one full award and another at roughly half the amount, or down select to one company.

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft. (Credit: NASA)
SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. (Credit: NASA)

With the freighter version of Dragon having flown to and from the International Space Station three times and additional flights scheduled for 2014, SpaceX would appear to be in a prime position to receive an additional award. The continued success of the Dragon and Falcon 9 in 2014 would bolster the company’s case significantly.


Launch of Delta IV NROL-65, August 28, 2013 from Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Credit: ULA)
Launch of Delta IV NROL-65, August 28, 2013 from Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Credit: ULA)

The rise of SpaceX is posing a significant challenge for America’s most successful launch company. Despite having two extremely reliable boosters in the Atlas V and Delta IV, ULA will soon find itself significantly undercut on price by SpaceX in the U.S. government launch market where it now enjoys a monopoly on medium- and heavy-lift payloads. With military and civilian launches booked years in advance and the Falcon 9 not yet certified, the change won’t happen immediately. But, competition is coming.

The problem is that ULA’s rockets are expensive — and their costs have only increased in recent years. Due to the expense, the company has had a difficult time marketing its launch vehicles to commercial satellite providers, giving the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture little to fall back on once SpaceX begins to bid on and win government launches.

ULA is pursuing a number of actions to meet the growing threat. It has worked out deals with the U.S. Air Force for bulk buy of rocket cores, which allows the company to lock in revenues from orders and spread costs over large orders. The sales also lock in the US Air Force to using the boosters and buy the company time to make other adjustments.

ULA is also looking at how it functions internally to find cost savings. It’s a tricky proposition for the company, which takes great pride in the reliability of its boosters. The last catastrophic failure of a Delta rocket (a Delta II) occurred 17 years ago. It’s been nearly 21 years since an Atlas rocket (an Atlas II) catastrophically failed.

If ULA makes too many cuts, its rockets could end up failing and taking valuable military and civilian satellites with them. However, if it doesn’t find significant savings, the company could find it difficult to stay in business over the long haul.

Atlas V launch (Credit: ULA)

Although the Atlas V is more expensive than its competitors, its reliability makes it an attractive launch vehicle for some satellite providers. In fact, Lockheed Martin announced a rare Atlas V commercial contract to launch a Mexican satellite earlier this year.

To make the Atlas V more competitive, ULA has embarked on the development of a system that would allow the rocket to deploy two satellites at once. The company would be able to spread the cost of a launch across two satellite providers.

The company is also working with XCOR Aerospace on a new liquid hydrogen upper stage engine to replace the venerable but expensive RL-10. The new engine is designed to significantly lower the cost of the Atlas V and Delta IV launchers, which use versions of the same upper stage.

ULA is also on two of the three teams competing for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Both Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation would use the Atlas V to launch their entries into the program. If the companies receive additional awards next year, demand for the Atlas V would increase, allowing ULA to spread costs over more orders.

Orbital Sciences Corporation

Antares lifts off with a Cygnus freighter. (Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation)
Antares lifts off with a Cygnus freighter. (Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation)

Orbital has the most diverse fleet of launch vehicles of any of the three companies. The company is also facing significant challenges on multiple fronts.

Despite two flawless flights this year, Orbital finds itself in a tricky situation as it attempts to market its new Antares launch vehicle. The rocket’s first stage is currently powered by a pair of AJ26 engines, which are refurbished 40-year old NK-33 engines left over from the Soviet Union’s manned lunar program.

There is a limited supply of these engines, which are no longer in production. Orbital Sciences wants to use Russian-built RD-180 engines in the first stage for future flights once the AJ26 engines are depleted. However, rival ULA has an exclusive arrangement with RD Amross to use these engines for the Atlas V. The companies have refused to allow Orbital to purchase the engines.

RD-180 test firing. (Credit: NASA)
RD-180 test firing. (Credit: NASA)

Orbital has filed a lawsuit against both companies, charging the exclusive arrangement gives ULA an unfair monopoly over medium-lift launches. The lawsuit is expected to go to trial next spring unless there is an out-of-court settlement prior to the start of proceedings.

Orbital’s other option is to pay to reopen the NK-33 assembly line in Russia. It is not known how much that option would cost, or whether it would allow Antares to remain a competitive launch vehicle. Purchasing RD-180s off an existing assembly line is likely a much cheaper alternative.

Unless the problem is resolved, production and launches of the Antares will eventually cease. NASA will be left with little to show for its investment in the rocket and the Cygnus freighter, which it funded in partnership with Orbital under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. The space agency will not have redundant cargo delivery services to ISS.

While the fate of Antares is decided, Orbital can look to the success of its Minotaur rocket family. Built with a combination of motors from decommissioned Peacekeeper and Minuteman II ballistic missiles, the Minotaur line has succeeded in 25 out of 25 flights. The launch vehicles are capable of everything from suborbital flights to deep space missions.

Minotaur I launch. (Credit: NASA)
Minotaur I launch. (Credit: NASA)

The company enjoyed two successes with the Minotaur family in 2013. In September, a Minotaur V made its debut flight by sending NASA’s LADEE orbiter to the moon. Two months later, a smaller Minotaur I launched a record 29 spacecraft into low Earth orbit.

How many additional Minotaurs will be launched is unknown. Because the rocket uses left-over engines from other programs, Orbital will eventually run out of stages for them.

Orbital also faces challenges with its other boosters. The air-launched Pegasus is expensive and can only orbit small satellites. There is little demand for it, and Orbital has considered ending the program in the past but has continued to keep it operational.

Pegasus has been highly reliable in recent years, which cannot be said for Orbital’s ground-based Taurus rocket. Taurus — which is a modified Pegasus mounted atop a first stage based on a Peacekeeper ballistic missile — has three failures in nine launch attempts, including the last two attempts. There also is not much demand for the booster; the rocket’s nine launches have been spread over 20 years.

The new design of Stratolaunch's carrier aircraft. (Credit: Stratolaunch Systems)
The new design of Stratolaunch’s carrier aircraft. (Credit: Stratolaunch Systems)

Despite Orbital’s challenges with its existing launch vehicles, the company has a major role to play in the Paul Allen-backed Stratolaunch Systems. The company is building an enormous six-engine aircraft in Mojave, Calif., that will air-launch a booster that Orbital is developing.  Flights of the carrier aircraft are due to begin in 2016, with the first test launch of the booster set for two years later.

  • Nickolai

    Great article Doug, very good overview of the state of the American launch vehicle arena. One thing I would add is that Generation Orbit is looking promising. I don’t know when they plan to become operational, certainly no later than 2015, but their product may chip away at Orbital’s share of the small satellite market.

  • Mader Levap

    I would like to read similiar overview of foregin launch vehicles and companies, like Ariane.

  • getitdoneinspace

    Any word about the efforts in New Mexico by SpaceX? I thought that some activity with the next Grasshopper was planned in December 2013.

  • Douglas Messier


    I think Generation Orbit is aimed at nanosats and CubeSats — that class of mission. You’ve also go plans by XCOR and Virgin Galactic to attack that end of the market. And a number of other boosters in development. That’s a complex area to write about because you’re dealing with a lot of speculative projects whose success is uncertain.

    Lockheed Martin and ATK are reviving the Athena rocket, which might compete with some of Orbital’s smaller launch vehicles. That project has been in the works for a while, and I’m not sure when the first launch is scheduled. I think it would be initially based out of Kodiak in Alaska but I think it could easily fly out of the Cape.

  • savuporo

    I think there are going to be interesting “discussions” coming up about every future SMD mission, that are often already locked years ahead to fly on ULA rockets.

    2020 Mars rover for example, they had a design for four rovers, 2 variants would be okay to fly on F9 and it was part of selection. They picked the larger one to fly on A5. F9 1.1 was not yet available at the time.

    By the time that launch comes around, there will be quite a few eyebrows raised IF SpaceX delivers.

  • savuporo

    Also, isnt Soyuz-2-1 competing for the same supply of NK-33 engines that Antares uses now ?

  • Stuart

    Unfortunately the vast majority of the Worlds public have no idea of these exciting times ahead of us! Excellent pair of articles Doug. My personal highlights for 2014 will be the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, Grasshopper launches and not forgetting the Orion test flight. Indeed I wonder if Blue Origin will surprise us this year.

  • Nickolai

    Sort of but not really. I think Aerojet bought a fixed number of NK-33’s, like 30 or so – definitely enough for Orbital to fill out its CRS contract. The remaining NK-33’s will probably go to Soyuz rather than Antares because I would expect the Russian government to protect it’s own interests.

    Another possibility is that NK-33 works so well on Soyuz-1 that Russia decides to restart the production line, make the option of staying with the NK-33 still not great for Orbital since starting the production line takes time, but much cheaper.

  • mzungu

    Keeping cost down on launching satellites with a manned vehicle is probably not easy, thought we may have learned that lesson from NASA-Shuttle episode sometime ago. 🙂 Even vehicles like the Pegasus which is kind of half-manned, it’s not cheap.

    Still amaze that people people think there is a market for small/nano sat launches, when you can easily piggyback these cubes/boxes to excess capabilities of larger launchers by other companies. Every year, seems like there is a white paper predicting a big boom on that market, that never comes.

    Good writing there, Doug. I never realized how much a bind that Orbital had worked itself into, they need start learning how to build some liquid engines on their own soon. Meanwhile, think I stay off from their stocks. 😀

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Wasn’t there some noise from Boeing that they might switch to the Falcon 9 for the CST-100 after initial few flights to reduce cost. The bottom line is what that matter to the shareholders.

  • Douglas Messier

    Yes, Boeing is studying that option. As far as I know, no decision has been made. A lot will depend on what NASA does for the next round of commercial crew later this year.

  • delphinus100

    “Keeping cost down on launching satellites with a manned vehicle is probably not easy, thought we may have learned that lesson from NASA-Shuttle episode sometime ago.”

    What causes you think there’s a significant difference between a Falcon 9 or Atlas V carrying humans, and one that’s not? Falcon was designed to NASA human-rating standards from the beginning, even though it has yet to carry humans. ULA knows that Atlas (and Delta, were there a human requirement) needs only some fault-detection hardware that payloads lacking a launch escape system to use the signals, don’t need.

    It’s not about reliability. That’s always there in modern launchers. Customers and insurers want the same probability of their very expensive sats reaching orbit as humans on board would get. This is about how to respond if something *does* go seriously wrong. For cargo, that’s usually just someone on the ground swearing about their property loss. For humans, that’s knowing in time to get out of Dodge. Indeed, the Range Safety Officer has to have similar information, to know if/when to push the button on an unmanned bird.


    ” Even vehicles like the Pegasus which is kind of half-manned, it’s not cheap.”

    But that’s hardly because it’s launched from a plane that was originally designed to be safe AND cheap enough to commercially carry people every day. I don’t hear UPS or FedEx calling for cheaper ‘drone’ 747s. They know there probably can’t be such a thing.

  • mzungu

    Perhaps you should check on the price of shipping explosives or rockets via FedEx or UPS, and compare that to shipping say a bag of inert dog food with the same weight. 🙂 U be lucky they let you ship by air.

  • Dennis

    Well, that obviously slipped 😉 From what I have heard the new Grasshopper is currently in McGregor where it will get to make a few testhops before getting shipped off to Spaceport America later this year.

  • Dennis

    I could very well imagine this scenario happening should the next CCP round select SpaceX for full funding and Boeing for say 50%.

    Falcon9 is going to be human rated anyway and most likely launched from 39-A at KSC, all Boeing would need to do is create an adapter for the CST and go with it. This would save a LOT of cash on having to human rate the Atlas 5 and also prevent having to spend money on upgrading a ULA launch pad for it.

  • Nickolai

    “Still amaze that people people think there is a market for small/nano sat launches, when you can easily piggyback these cubes/boxes to excess capabilities of larger launchers by other companies. Every year, seems like there is a white paper predicting a big boom on that market, that never comes.”

    In a private conversation with AJ Piplica, the COO of Generation Orbit, I expressed this concern to him and found his response very interesting. He acknowledged the option of piggybacking (how could he not) and even stated that GO’s service would be more expensive. Their business model, where they think they can get an edge, is timely delivery. According to him, it can take years to get a satellite up via piggyback, and any delays of the rocket or primary satellite become your delays. According to AJ, GO guarantees delivery to orbit (or sub-orbital flight) within 6 months of contract signature. Sounds reasonable – extra money for timely service, we’ll see if it works out.

  • Linsey Young

    You would also get a choice in the final orbit I would imagine. Piggybacking tends to limit that somewhat.

  • Douglas Messier

    Or it could be the opposite — a full Boeing award with a half award to SpaceX. Why? Because Elon will human rate the booster and Dragon in any event.

  • Douglas Messier

    There’s a definite military market for rapid deployment of small satellites. With these spacecraft becoming both smaller and more sophisticated, I could see them helping to sustain a market.

    Also, think of companies like Planet Labs not having to wait months for Antares launches. Could turn out satellites on an assembly line and launch them as needed. Opens up even more capability.

  • mzungu

    Don’t forget the Pentagons/DRAPA’s need to ASAT application. With the Russian and Chinese GPS coming online, I suspect all these “rapid deployment small satellites” are nothing more than thinly veiled KE warheads to knock down some Beidou satellites.

    Hard for me to think that Pentagon is just building a bunch of small sat, and have it sit on the ground waiting for it to launch at the time of need , while these small satellite battery are drained, fuels leak, gets outdated…

    Small sats have nowhere near the same imaging resolution that larger spy satellite has. These days troops on the ground needs to know if someone is holding a shovel or a AK-47, so I don’t know if small sat have the optic sized for this.. something better leave it to the drones.

  • mzungu

    I think one of the thing to looked at is also what you pointed out as the economic of scale. It’s cheaper to build in bulk, and launch them as well.

    I think in Planet Labs case, Launching them all on Antares is cheaper than launching them on multiple Pegasus, which is also available to them. Which speaks for to economy of small launchers, and how most satellite customers views the trade-off between launch time and price. Launching these swarm sat. in small batches is just probably a bureaucratic and organizational nightmare, getting all the licenses in order and a launch crew ready for each little batch.

    So, I would be really cautious on investing in smaller and smaller launchers even for these swarm sats.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    After NASA handing off LC-39A to SpaceX than not awarding them the commercial crew contract make little sense. Then NASA better be able explain that in court why SpaceX wasn’t chosen.

    Come to think of it. a third option is possible. NASA do quick down select to SpaceX as the sole commercial crew provider.

  • mfck

    That would defeat the whole purpose of having a commercial CTS. Let’s hope this won’t happen…

  • Douglas Messier

    You’re right. According to Wikipedia: “Once the supply is exhausted, the NK-33 will be replaced by the RD-193. In April 2013, it was announced that the RD-193 engine had completed testing. The RD-193 is a lighter and shorter engine based on the Angara’s RD-191, which is itself a derivative of the Zenit’s RD-170.”

    Not sure if the RD-193 is an option for Orbital or not.