The reports of the demise of the U.S. space industry may have been greatly exaggerated. A few years ago, this country hit a low point when NASA retired the Shuttle and canceled its replacement, the government was dependent on a single launch services provider, the United Launch Alliance (ULA), whose heavy lift rocket used a first stage engine bought from Russia and the Pentagon had trouble managing a number of its space-related programs. The U.S. is now coming back. In fact, this country is doing more than that; it is pushing the envelope with cutting-edge capabilities that are likely to restore American primacy in space.
The list of recent achievements is quite impressive already, with more to come. What is particularly impressive is the way U.S. private companies have responded to the new emphasis on commercially-oriented solutions by providing answers to very hard problems. Here are some examples:
- The poster child for the new American approach to acquiring space-related capabilities and services is Elon Musk’s SpaceX. This private company has become a fierce competitor in the launch services business. Its Dragon capsule is delivering cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and the company’s Falcon 9 rocket was certified last year to launch military satellites. This means there will be competition in the government-oriented launch business between ULA and SpaceX. The latter also is looking for new commercial launch opportunities such as deploying a swarm of small satellites to provide global Internet access that should lower the overall cost of launch services.
- Not only has SpaceX reshaped the launch services business, it also is providing advanced systems to return the U.S. to space. In 2014, NASA selected Boeing’s Crew Space Transportation (CST-100) and SpaceX’s Dragon to compete for the mission of moving astronauts to and from space.
- There has been remarkable progress by the U.S. rocket engine industrial base to develop new domestically-designed and produced launch vehicle motors. In particular, the U.S. government wants to end its dependence on the Russian RD-180 first stage motor for ULA’s Atlas V heavy launch vehicle. Russia could deny ULA the use of their engines, including those already acquired. There are several potential replacements being developed. The most promising is Aerojet’s AR1, which the company says will be ready for use by 2019. Another is the BE-4 from Blue Origin which uses, methane, an unproven fuel source, and has yet to be demonstrated at the required scale.
- The goal of a truly reusable space launch system, attempted unsuccessfully with the Shuttle program, may be close to attainment. SpaceX had several near-miss attempts to land its Falcon 9 on a sea-based platform before successfully putting the Falcon 9 down on land. Blue Origin successfully returned its New Shepard vehicle to Earth after a suborbital flight. The ability to reuse the first stage of a space launch vehicle could reduce overall launch costs by up to half.
- Probably the most innovative space-related achievements by a U.S. company is Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser. Originally proposed as an alternative to more traditional capsule designs for transporting human beings in space, the Dream Chaser was selected just this week by NASA to join SpaceX and Orbital ATK in delivering cargo to the ISS. The Dream Chaser has been described as a mini-shuttle, launched vertically atop a large rocket but returning to Earth like an airplane. Apparently NASA recognized it had something unique in Dream Chaser but didn’t want to take the risk of selecting it as a possible space personnel carrier. Sierra Nevada used its own resources to keep the Dream Chaser alive after it lost the competition to be NASA’s crew transportation vehicle. Now there will be an opportunity to demonstrate what Dream Chaser can do and to create opportunities for its use as a commercial launch and space transportation vehicle. There are also a number of interesting military opportunities for the Dream Chaser as an ISR platform or to support space defense operations.
Companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada are changing the space launch business. In a number of cases, they have invested their own funds to develop and/or test new systems. Their goal is to break the cost curve for launch services thereby creating new commercial opportunities and a radically different business case for going into space.
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