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.