Year in Review: Launch Industry Disrupted in 2014

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SpaceX Founder Elon Musk has long talked about disrupting the launch industry with low prices and technological innovations. In 2014, the impacts of those efforts were felt far and wide as competitors responded to the threat the California company posed to their livelihoods.

ULA Pivots. With SpaceX reeling off one successful launch after another, ULA pivoted on several fronts. One was to announce efforts to significantly reduce costs on its highly reliable but pricey Atlas V and Delta IV boosters. But, even that proved to be insufficient as SpaceX threatened ULA on several fronts.

In August, ULA named Tory Bruno as its new president and CEO to replace Michael Gass, who had served in those roles since the company was founded in 2006. The following month, Bruno joined Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos at a press conference to announce a joint venture to develop a new first-stage engine to power ULA’s launchers. The partnership involves Bezos’ secretive Blue Origin rocket company, which has been working on advanced propulsion technologies.

The new engine was not simply a response to SpaceX; it also reflected the deteriorating relationship between the United Statea and Russia over the Ukraine crisis. Officials in Washington decided it was time to stop using imported Russian RD-180 engines in the Atlas V’s first stage.  Congress has set a deadline of 2019 for the engine to be operational.

The U.S. Air Force, which is ULA’s primary customer, has not signed off on any engine plan yet. Other manufacturers are interested in providing a replacement motor. Congress included $220 million in the defense budget for Fiscal Year 2015 to fund a new engine despite Air Force protests that it did not have a program and plan in place to spend the money.

ULA already has XCOR Aerospace developing a new upper-stage engine to replace the aging and expensive RL-10 motor used on both of its boosters. The engine will have similar performance, but it will be reusable and be much cheaper to produce. XCOR continued to make good progress on the new engine throughout 2014.

ULA also faced a dual threat to its monopoly on military launches in 2014. In June, SpaceX sued to invalidate a 36-rocket core deal the U.S. Air Force awarded to the company. That matter is still in litigation. And, as the year wore on, SpaceX came ever closer to obtaining certification to compete for military launch contracts. Certification is likely early this year.

Europe’s Revolution

Artist's impression of Ariane 6. (Credit: ESA)
Artist’s impression of Ariane 6. (Credit: ESA)

SpaceX has helped to facilitate what officials are calling a “revolution” in European rocket development. ESA has thrown out the old model (for the most part), and it is placing unprecedented responsibility on industry for the continent’s next generation of launch vehicles.

In December, European space ministers agreed to fund the development of the new Ariane 6 booster and to guarantee a certain number of government launches annually for the initial years of operations. ESA also is giving European industry free reign to design and build the Ariane 5 replacement without having specifications dictated to it. Industry also will be responsible for finding commercial payloads for the new rocket.

European ministers further agreed to fund the development of Vega C, which is an upgraded version of the already operational Vega light launch vehicle.

In reaching these decisions, officials ended a simmering dispute that saw France backing a new Ariane 6 booster, while Germany preferred to focus on upgrades to the existing Ariane 5 launch vehicle. The two nations, who are the highest national contributors to ESA’s budget, are happy with the new plan. The Vega C project also pleased Italy, which has led development of that family of boosters.

Work on Ariane 6 will be led by a joint venture of Airbus Group of The Netherlands and Safran of France. In November, the European Commission gave its blessing to the deal, subject to conditions designed to preserve competitiveness in other areas.

ATK & Orbital Merge

ATK employees at the company's Promontory, Utah facility prepare a segment of a qualification motor for NASA's Space Launch System for transport. (Credit: ATK)
ATK employees at the company’s Promontory, Utah facility prepare a segment of a qualification motor for NASA’s Space Launch System for transport. (Credit: ATK)

In April, ATK and Orbital Sciences Corporation announced plans to merge into a single company with annual revenues of $4.5 billion. The two companies said the merger would

combine Orbital’s small- and medium-class satellite and launch vehicle product lines with ATK A&D’s rocket propulsion, composite structures and space power systems to produce even more capable and affordable space and missile defense products. At the same time, it will enhance ATK A&D’s strategic and tactical missile systems and propulsion, precision weapons and military armament, and commercial and military aircraft programs by leveraging Orbital’s systems design, engineering and integration capabilities to provide greater value-added to current and future customers.

The companies had hoped to complete the merger in December with separate votes of the companies’ shareholders. However, the deal was delayed due to the crash of an Orbital Antares rocket at the end of October. Shareholder votes have been rescheduled for Jan. 27, with the deal closing in February if it is approved. Last month, the deal was unconditionally cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice, which reviewed the deal for possible anti-trust violations.

Russia Consolidates

Vladimir Putin inspects construction at Vostochny. (Credit:  Presidential Press and Information Office)
Vladimir Putin inspects construction at Vostochny. (Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office)

As the United States and Europe sought to tap into the power of their commercial space sectors, Russia spent 2014 in a headlong rush in the other direction.

Fed up with years of launch failures, Russia’s leaders decided that the post-Soviet arrangement of having independent and quasi-independent space companies was no longer viable. In 2014, they began to implement a sweeping re-nationalization of the space industry under the new state-owned United Rocket and Space Corporation (URSC). The consolidation will bring together organizations employing about 196,000 workers.

Whether this decision will make a bloated industry competitive again remains to be seen. USRC must deal with an industry that has too much capacity and too many workers while simultaneously lacking a younger generation of engineers to replace its aging workforce. In response, officials have taken steps to increase low salaries and recruit new workers into the industry.

Much work remains ahead. Merging large and disparate organizations under a single company is a stressful and confusing process. In order to make the industry efficient and competitive, URSC will likely have to close down redundant facilities and conduct mass layoffs. That will result in even more stress, and it will strain the social safety net of an economy already reeling from low oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine. There’s also the scary scenario of unemployed engineers selling their knowledge of rocketry to any rogue regime with enough money to pay them.

Russia continued to lead the world in launches in 2014 with 38 orbital and suborbital flights. However, problems remained with quality control, with one launch vehicle failing to orbit a satellite and two others placing spacecraft in the wrong orbits.

The highlights of the year were successful maiden flight tests of the new Angara boosters. The Angara-1.2 booster flew a suborbital profile in July, followed by an orbital test of the larger Angara-5 launch vehicle in December.

Inaugural Angara A5 launch (Credit: Khrunichev)
Inaugural Angara A5 launch (Credit: Khrunichev)

Approved in 1995, Angara is a modular family of rockets designed to free Russia from reliance upon several Soviet-era launch vehicles, including Proton, Zenit, Rockot and Dnepr. The Zenit and Dnepr rockets involve joint ventures with Ukrainian companies.

Meanwhile, Russia made significant progress on the new Vostochny cosmodrome in the Far East. The spaceport is designed to lessen dependence on the Baikonur launch center in Kazakhstan. Officials are aiming to have an initial launch from Vostochny by the end of this year.

Angara and Vostochny are two major elements of Russia’s effort to recover from the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991. The Russian space program was left with its principle launch site, Baikonur in a foreign country. Newly independent Ukraine also took over some of the Soviet Union’s space design and manufacturing bureaus.

Two Russian launch ventures retrenched in 2014. International Launch Services, which markets the Proton booster, laid off a quarter of its workforce. The reasons included a shift toward lighter satellites, weak sales resulting from recent launch vehicle failures, and rising tensions between Russia and Western nations over Ukraine.

Sea Launch also retrenched last year due to a light manifest. The company, majority owned by a subsidiary of RSC Energia, has been troubled by launch accidents, and it has failure to capture a significant share of the geosynchronous satellite market.

Energia has been eager to move operations out of the United States, but it has had no luck finding a viable new home. Over the years, stories have had Sea Launch being relocated to Kamchatka in western Russia or Vietnam, or being sold to an Israeli company. In December, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said there were ongoing discussions with Brazil about relocating the company there.

What Lies Ahead

SpaceX first stage recovery drone ship. (Credit: SpaceX)
SpaceX first stage recovery drone ship. (Credit: SpaceX)

If all this sounds pretty disruptive, hold onto your hats. Things could be getting a lot more interesting very soon.

SpaceX’s ultimate disruption may lie just ahead. Later this week, the company will attempt to land the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on a barge. If SpaceX can make the Falcon 9 at least partially reusable, it will be able to cut launch costs even further, putting ULA, ILS, Orbital, the Russians and the everyone else at an even greater disadvantage.