Restart Your Engines: Launchers Recalibrate After Pandemic Pause

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket was on the launch pad at Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, just days away from the “Don’t Stop Me Now” mission, when the small satellite launcher abruptly had to shut down after the New Zealand government called for most businesses to close to combat the COVID-19 pandemic on March 23.

“We had the vehicle on the pad, the whole team, and even the activated customers there and everything. We were ready to go,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck says, recounting the shutdown. “When people's lives are at risk, it's hard to get a little bit too upset. I think it was the right thing to do for the country.”

Rocket Lab’s launch complex and rocket engine factory were shut down as the New Zealand government took a tough stance on the pandemic. Beck called it a “pretty crazy time,” shutting down the rocket engine facility. But true to its name, the “Don’t Stop Me Now” mission would go on to lift payloads for NASA, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and the University of New South Wales Canberra Space to orbit on June 13.

The launch symbolized a return normalcy in the launch market, which encountered disruptions like the rest of the space industry, and so many other facets of life.

Dealing with Delays

Beck says Rocket Lab’s progress on the Launch Complex 2 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops, Virginia has slowed due to the pandemic. With NASA in lockdown, certification of Rocket Lab’s Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS) has been delayed. The launch company has also found it challenging to move employees between New Zealand and the United States.

“New Zealand’s border is closed. So it takes a government minister's approval to get anybody in. The U.S. border is not closed, but there’s a two-week quarantine period. You have to add two weeks to every move that you do, which is just more challenging,” he says.

The CEO jokes that Rocket Lab now has a “factory full of rockets.” As Launch Complex 1 is back up and running, the launcher projects a rapid cadence of launches for the rest of the year. Beck’s goal for Rocket Lab in 2020 has been to launch once a month or more this year. Although the company has doubled its launch cadence each year in the past, he expects the effects of the pandemic to continue, and for 2021 to look more similar to 2020.

Like Rocket Lab, Arianespace also experienced a spaceport shutdown. The European launcher suspended operations at the Guiana Space Center (CSG) in French Guiana on March 16, just ahead of its first dedicated Vega rideshare mission. Luce Fabreguettes, Arianespace’s executive vice president of Missions, Operations and Purchasing said the company did what was necessary to protect its staff, customers, and the local population.

Rocket Lab’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” mission, which was delayed by COVID-19 restrictions in New Zealand, lived up to its name and successfully took off on June 13.Rocket Lab

“Given the worldwide situation and what we knew at the time, we had no choice but to put operations on hold. Since we are known for doing everything reasonably possible not to delay launch activities, everyone was quite understanding and grateful for the measures we had to take. Protecting both teams and payloads remain our top priority, and this ‘pause’ helped us establish a reliable safety protocol for the long run,” Fabreguettes says.

Arianespace has instituted mandatory temperature and wellness checks, usage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and social distancing. The company has also had to give special attention to staff from abroad entering French Guiana, including safety quarantines. The French launcher is now targeting June 18 for its Vega return to flight, the Small Spacecraft Mission Service (SSMS) Proof of Concept (PoC) Flight. Arianespace’s light-lift Vega rocket will orbit 53 satellites for the first occasion of its new service to address the small satellite market.

Fabreguettes admits this will be a challenging year, and says it’s too early to say how many launches Arianespace will do from the CSG. “What is certain is that on top of the interruption of our campaigns in March, there could be delays that are out of our control, due to customers and manufacturers being in pandemic mode,” she says.

Arianespace's anticipated launch vehicle, the Ariane 6, could be impacted as well. European Space Agency (ESA) Director of Space Transportation Daniel Neuenschwander says the Ariane 6 rocket, which was slated for its maiden flight in 2020, is experiencing delays. He cites that the third static fire test of the P120C booster for Ariane 6 qualification was delayed, and work at the vehicle’s construction site at Europe’s Spaceport has had delayed progress, and industrial sites involved in the system’s development and manufacturing have also experienced variations in productivity because of the pandemic.

“ESA is working intensely, and very closely with all actors involved, industry and [the National Centre for Space Studies] CNES, to stabilize and consolidate the planning. Today we are daily addressing the preliminary impacts and preparing to return to a stable level of activity. We will fully consolidate the planning and assess the full impact of COVID-19 on Ariane 6 once we have more clarity on how the European economy will be able to function in the coming months,” Neuenschwander says.

A “Radically” Different Future

In the United States, SpaceX pressed on with launches, completing three Starlink launches and its milestone Demo-2 launch for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program on May 30. Yet even SpaceX has been impacted by the pandemic, as Argentina’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation and the National Commission for Space Activities (CONAE) chose to postpone the launch of its SAOCOM 1B satellite, which was planned for March; and the U.S. Space Force pushed back the third GPS III satellite launch, which was scheduled for April.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) proceeded with two Atlas V launches for the U.S. Space Force, lofting the sixth Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) payload to orbit on March 26, and the X-37B spaceplane on May 17. ULA CEO Tory Bruno says the X-37B launch was not only on time, but ahead of schedule, and he attributes ULA’s ability to complete the two missions amidst a pandemic to tackling the issue early and aggressively.

At the beginning of March, ULA took steps to protect its staff by implementing telework when possible, disinfecting surfaces hourly, and having employees wear face coverings. Bruno holds a daily meeting on how to stay on top of the company’s virus response. For the most recent launch, ULA used both the Atlas mission control and the Delta facilities in order to space workers out for social distancing, and kept its launch critical employees at home as much as possible, in a form of quarantine, before launch day.

“There are things that happen in the rocket business that are out of your control like hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods. Those events are more easily planned for because we have a business continuity plan, a rough outline of what we do. And those events come and go. They're transient and over in a relatively short amount of time. There really hasn't been anything like a global pandemic before,” Bruno says.

ULA went so far as to create an exercise like a war game, to practice its response to clearing out its Colorado engineering facility in the event of a confirmed COVID case. After running an open test, Bruno had a secret plan to run another test without revealing it was a test. But before that could happen — an employee at the site tested positive. “You can have your own plans, but sometimes COVID has a plan for you,” Bruno says. Overall, ULA has had two positive COVID tests among its workforce.

Bruno says he doesn’t expect the pandemic to impact ULA’s launch manifest because it services the government and large commercial customers. He says it has taken a “tremendous amount of energy and work” to keep the Vulcan rocket on track for a maiden flight in 2021, but it is on schedule.

Beyond changes to day-to-day operations, Bruno says the pandemic represents a chance for ULA and the space industry to reevaluate how work is done.

“We've shattered a lot of preconceived notions about what work looks like. When we return, it’s going to be different. There will be a built-in element of telework at ULA moving forward. We figured out just how effective it can be when [employees] are working from home,” he says. “In the space industry, we’re conservative. Experimenting with radically different work models is just something that doesn't happen. But the pandemic gave us no choice, we had to learn how to do it.”

ULA's USSF-7 mission for the U.S. Space Force, carrying the X-37B spaceplane on May 17, was ahead of schedule. United Launch Alliance

On the other side of the globe in Japan, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) held remote meetings and reviews before a launch to the International Space Station (ISS), says Dr. Ko Ogasawara, MHI Space Systems general manager. On May 21, when MHI launched the H-IIB F9, carrying its cargo transporter to the ISS, many engineers who would normally be at the launch site provided remote support instead. Ogasawara says it was “unusual” to have a large group of employees from MHI and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) working on the launch remotely, but now they have become accustomed to it and the situation could even yield cost savings in the future.

Japan has lifted its state of emergency, and MHI employees are back in the office for half of each week. The launcher is preparing for three to four more launches this year, and Ogasawara says its factory is operating normally. Yet the launcher has experienced some delays in its supply chain. He shares an example with a specific structure MHI purchased from Europe. “The engineers of the manufacturer have to come down to Tanegashima launch site, but as you know, Japan shut down. We had to ask our government [for a] special allowance to let the engineers come to Tanegashima launch site,” Ogasawara says.

MHI is now in the final stage of development and undergoing tests for its next-generation, H3 launch vehicle, which is set for a maiden flight by the end of March 2021.

Other Contenders Look to the Future

Tiphaine Louradour took over as president of International Launch Services (ILS) in March, just as the pandemic was sweeping the globe. She says she spent her first week as president at the SATELLITE show in Washington D.C., and was in ILS’s office for approximately half of a work day before the company transitioned to remote work. Now, she is video conferencing with customers around the world, instead of traveling for in-person meetings.

ILS, which is based in the U.S. and owned by Russia’s JSC Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center (Khrunichev), has not had a launch since the October 2019 Proton launch for Eutelsat. Louradour, who was previously head of global commercial sales at ULA, has ambitious plans to reclaim ILS’s status in the commercial launch market. The launcher recently received approval from the U.S. State Department to promote commercial launch services on the Soyuz vehicle. There are two federal Proton launches for the Russian government, and several Soyuz launches planned for this year.

Louradour says she is honing a strategy that will push marketing and sales activities, and focus on the reliability of the Proton vehicle. Moving forward, she says she wants to expand ILS’s launch service offerings in order to meet customers broader demands.

“During these uncertain it is absolutely critical that we work closely with our customers and really understand their needs and challenges,” Louradour says. “And what's really standing out today is the need to offer flexible, reliable, cost-effective launch solutions. ... I believe that is something we're well-positioned to do going forward with our ability to offer a broader set of launch solutions, working closely with GK Launch Services.”

Two future competitors in the smallsat launch market, Firefly Aerospace and Skyrora, both say that their vehicle development has not been exceedingly hampered by the pandemic.

Skyrora, based in the United Kingdom, recently completed a full static fire test of a mobile launch complex with a Skylark L rocket. The company hit this milestone while also manufacturing face masks and hand sanitizer for the COVID-19 relief effort in the U.K. “If we can go through the compliance for sending a rocket to space — for getting a face mask certified, [we were] in a unique position to push that forward,” Dr. Jack-James Marlow says. Skyrora has been able to retain all members of its staff during the pandemic, and even hired two graduates to assist with face masks and hand sanitizer production.

Marlow says Skyrora hit its test milestone with a delay of only a few weeks, and is on track to launch the sub-orbital Skylark L rocket from a British spaceport as early as Spring 2021.

Firefly Aerospace is planning later this year for the inaugural flight of its Alpha launch vehicle, which will also serve the small-satellite market. COO Robb Kulin says despite the pandemic, the timeline is on track, and the first and second stages are well into integration. The company has implemented remote work when possible, and split shifts for social distancing, and even found that it has improved communication channels across the company, and given employees better opportunities to focus. Kulin says there have been supply chain disruptions, and Firefly has dealt with it by bringing those orders in-house, and has even hired new employees for that work.

Firefly’s Director of Commercial Business Development Eric Salwan says that while the economic situation created by the pandemic will likely create short-term pressure on startups and would-be customers, he expects the market for smallsat launch customers to continue to expand in the long term.

“There's going to be a weeding out of companies. This might accelerate some of it,” Salwan says. “But the entire cislunar economy is growing so quickly, and there's going to be many more thousands of satellites being launched over the next five to 10 years. ... There's going to be a substantial market out there for Firefly to go after and capture our share of the market.”

Smallsat Specialists Were Built for This

Grant Bonin, senior vice president of Business Development for Spaceflight, a launch services and mission management provider, says his company and customers built contingencies for delays into their business plans. Spaceflight was directly impacted by the Guiana Space Center shutdown, as it provided mission management and rideshare integration services for four organizations on the rideshare mission, comprising 28 payloads.

Bonin says overall, Spaceflight is seeing customers that want to move between launches, while others are rethinking the number of spacecraft they want to fly and the cadence with which they want to fly them, while others are pushing forward to create value as quickly as possible.

“We have customers that come to us who will say, ‘The most important thing for us is flexibility. We don't know when we're going to be ready. So we want to be able to hop on the earliest ride available.’ And then in turn, the launch vehicle providers don't always know when they're going to be ready. So this is a great place for us to be, we create a lot of value for customers by being able to give them that flexibility,” he says. “In times of uncertainty, flexibility is worth its weight in solid components.”

Not everyone has had to make major adjustments to their business operations during the pandemic. Rob Spicer, CEO of TriSept, which also provides launch integration and program management services, says most of the company’s customer launch and mission programs secured essential personnel status and maintained forward progress on upcoming launches, despite some COVID-19-related delays. TriSept completed integration for NASA’s ELaNa 32 ANDESITE mission just as the pandemic shut things down mid-March in the U.S. That payload, on Rocket Lab's “Don’t Stop Me Now” mission, has since been launched.

“Any COVID-related delay was minor,” Spicer says. “Existing launchers have been able to continue with launches [in the continental U.S.] during the pandemic, while new launcher companies have proceeded with engine testing and most of their production and manufacturing phases. The near-term effects appear to be minimal across the small satellite and launch industry.”

Moving Forward

While the launch sector hasn’t been hit as directly as the travel and hospitality markets, Fabreguettes of Arianespace says it’s clear the commercial satellite market has been affected and that impact will be felt in the long-term. OneWeb and Intelsat, both global satellite operators that have recently filed for bankruptcy, are also both Arianespace customers.

“It is clear that the commercial market is shaken by the pandemic,” she says. “Nevertheless, the crisis showed growing needs for connectivity and space-based networks – which will definitely play a pivotal role in the future. More than ever, we need space to live better on earth. We hope that our customers which have been weakened by the crisis will recover quickly.”

Rocket Lab CEO Beck doesn’t expect to see any pre-revenue venture capital released for the next nine to 12 months, as Silicon Valley has gone into hibernation. And in terms of the market for smallsat launch, he only sees room for one rideshare company, and one dedicated launch vehicle, despite the wave of dedicated smallsat launchers with plans to enter the market.

Spaceflight’s Bonin agrees, and says there had been an expectation that downward macroeconomic pressure would affect the space industry, which has now exacerbated the COVID-19 crisis — but it’s not all bad news. “The commercial space industry has enjoyed a very long, pleasant summer. We're preparing now for a Canadian-type of winter,” Bonin says. “But at the same time, great companies and great ideas find money and they find customers, almost regardless of the circumstances. ... Healthy companies that are viable, will succeed. They will thrive, and they will need to be launched.” VS

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