Major Launchers Look Toward the ‘New Era’ of Space Launch
April 1, 2022
Established launch players working on the next generation of rockets are fueling a future of more launches — and more historic launches — that few could have imagined just a few years ago. Leading launchers shared excitement for current capabilities and where that can lead during SATELLITE 2022.
Tory Bruno, CEO of United Launch Alliance (ULA) previewed the new Vulcan launch vehicle, which he assured will launch later this year. “That kind of begins a new era for us,” Bruno said on March 22 of the anticipated rocket. “And I think for the launch industry, at large.”
Rocket Lab is preparing to open up operations on Wallops Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, for Electron launches. “We are very excited about that,” said Lars Hoffman, senior vice president of Global Launch Services for Rocket Lab. “We went public last summer, and that was a big transition. It's different being a public company than a private company. We're learning that now, we've continued to grow as a result.”
He said that Rocket Lab has a full manifest this year, projecting about a one launch per month pace right now. “We're keeping pace with the market. We're trying not to get too far ahead of the market. But that's where the market is at right now,” Hoffman said.
Arianespace CEO Stephane Israel highlighted the Ariane 5 launch in December of the James Webb Space Telescope, which Arianespace worked with NASA on for many years. Israel said not only was the mission a success, but it demonstrated an over-performance in terms of the Ariane 5 life expectancy.
But he did cite hold-ups to progress amid the situation in Ukraine. Just before SATELLITE, Arianespace suspended use of the Russian-made Soyuz launch vehicle ahead of a OneWeb launch because of geopolitical concerns with Russia. OneWeb announced a launch deal with SpaceX during the show to continue its constellation launches.
“We need an evolution of the federal political situation,” Israel said. “We are working very closely with our commercial customers to accommodate the best solutions for them, and that is challenging.”
SpaceX continues its fast-paced development this year. Tom Ochinero, vice president of Commercial Sales for SpaceX said this year SpaceX hopes to reach more than 50 launches, including five Falcon Heavy launches and at least four crewed missions. SpaceX is also hoping to start flying their Starship sometime in the next couple of months, which would be the first orbital mission for that spacecraft.
Blue Origin highlighted its success in commercial spaceflight, as the company launched 14 people on the New Shepard suborbital launch vehicle in the past year.
Jarrett Jones, senior vice president of New Glenn and Blue Origin said the company is growing fast, with a net increase of over 1,000 people over the last year. The company has opened up multiple facilities in the U.S., including a new facility in Denver and another in Phoenix. Another facility is planned for Reston, Virginia.
Jones said that Blue Origin is well into getting qualification of the New Glenn vehicle for launch, both the upper and the booster stages, and has completed final design reviews. “Now we have transitioned into execution,” he said. “We're focused on building flight hardware, which we're already in the process of doing. We're progressing. We're working very closely with our customers that we have on contract to solidify launch timing and manifest. It's looking pretty good right now.”
With all of this action and growth, is the marketplace able to sustain demand? “No, it does not,” Bruno said. “A few of us will continue, some of us will not. It's pretty much as simple as that. There's growth, it's not as big as you think it is. It's going to sustain maybe more players than in the past. But not everybody that's here.”
Hoffman said that Rocket Lab realized the market is not signaling that will blossom like some hope. “We saw that we needed to grow our launch capability into a larger vehicle,” he said. “We felt like the one ton class, plus or minus, is really not the right place to go. We studied the market over the next decade or so as best as we could. We saw all of the mega-constellations entering the market. As we're seeing today, with some of the current world events, there's going to be even more opportunity in that segment of the market.”
Ochinero agreed that there is not a big enough market for all the small launchers out there. “We are all in on big launchers like Starship, which is a vehicle that's capable of landing on the Moon and taking people to other destinations,” he said. “There is also a ‘Field of Dreams’ aspect of that: When you build it, they will come. I think we're at this tipping point. We're seeing more and more launches.”
Survival as a next-generation launcher depends on vertical integration in these times of logistics hang-ups and other resource procurement issues. It’s been a lesson learned by the new launchers.
The build-it-all-yourself philosophy is how Rocket Lab operates, Hoffman said. “This company really was founded on that DNA,” he said. “They do their own engineering, they do a lot of their own manufacturing. We're constantly innovating our supply chain and making sure that there's resilience in the supply chain. We've seen that as we've weathered the storm over the last couple years to COVID.”
It’s all about reusability, Jarrett said. “We’ve seen reusability proven out, and we're doing it with our Shepard launcher,” he said. “Our focus for our New Glenn booster from day one has been reusability. We're hyper-focused on execution for the reusable booster, and we'll have multiple boosters in our fleet. Getting to true usability, and execution regularly, and having availability for the customers, to me, is the long term gain.” VS