WASHINGTON – As the arrival of entrepreneurial start-ups like Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin fuels a renewed interest in space, the aerospace industry is jockeying for position.
A revolution in creative ideas for space access has emerged over the last few years, from reusable rocket engines to the proliferation of miniature satellites or "cubesats." This space boom is reinvigorating the industry, opening up new pockets of the market to competition.
One such pocket is small space launch, where several new companies like Firefly and XCOR Aerospace are cropping up to meet a growing demand for vehicles to launch small payloads. But according to one aerospace company, there is still a void of domestic solutions to service the payload class on the upper edge of what is defined as "small," between 500 to 2,000 kg.
In this payload class, Orbital ATK argues that US companies are at a distinct disadvantage. The Russians are using rocket motors from the nation's decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missiles to launch commercial payloads in this weight range at a much lower cost, according to Ed Fortunato, Orbital ATK's senior vice president for government relations. Meanwhile, companies in Europe and India are building launch vehicles for this weight class using subsidized government funds, Fortunato said in an April 4 interview.
Orbital ATK is arguing the US government should allow US companies to buy rocket motors from decommissioned Air Force intercontinental ballistic missiles at market price to use for commercial space launch. This move would create jobs at home and stem the flow of US dollars to Russia, argued Barron Beneski, company vice president of investor relations and corporate communications.
"That's the only way a US company is going to be able to compete with the Russians," Beneski said. "It's crazy that US allies and American companies can't compete with Russians that use ICBM assets when there's a whole store of them here in the United States that we can't have access to."
The plan would save the Air Force the $15-20 million a year it spends maintaining about 800 excess ICBM rocket motors, and inject $30 million of business into the launch vehicle supply base, Fortunato said.
Another advantage is job creation at the four launches ranges across the US, Beneski said. Orbital ATK has already launched its Minotaur family of vehicles, which use ICBM rocket motors for military launches, from facilities in Virginia, California and Alaska, and will launch out of Florida next year, he said.
"It's win-win for everybody. It's a win because the Air Force gets something off their books – are they saving lots of money? No. Are they saving some money? Yes," Fortunato said. "Commercial companies compete for it, commercial satellite manufacturers have a domestic alternative for it now … it just satisfies a market need right now."
Plus, "not sending money to Russia to launch those satellites, that gets people's attention," he stressed.
But competitors argue that Orbital ATK is the only company that currently has the ability to incorporate solid-fuel ICBM rocket motors into a launch vehicle. Orbital ATK already does this with its Minotaur family of launch vehicles, which has supported 25 Defense Department satellite launches, Beneski said. Currently, Minotaur is restricted to DOD missions.
Newer companies generally use liquid-fuel rocket technology, considered more cost-effective for certain missions. It only makes financial sense to build a commercial version of a launch vehicle fueled by solid ICBM rocket motors if the US government pays the majority of the cost, argued Richard DalBello, Virgin Galactic vice president for business development and government affairs.
"I have heard the argument that anybody could use these [ICBM] assets. But all new, efficient, launch companies have chosen liquid rocket technology over solid technology," said DalBello. "Saying everyone could use these assets is like offering railroads and airlines all the used boxcars they want. The problem is that the airlines are not in the boxcar business."
Virgin Galactic is going to introduce Launcher One, an air-launched rocket planned to launch 300-400 kg payloads into low earth orbit, in 2017.
Fortunato and Beneski argued that if the government releases these ICBM assets to industry, Orbital ATK's solution would not compete with the new companies looking to launch very small satellites into space. There is no domestic solution, existing or in development, that can launch payloads in the 500 to 2,000 kg range, Fortunato said.
However, DalBello argues releasing excess government assets into the commercial launch marketplace is "a bad idea" that kills innovation.
"Every President since Ronald Reagan has made encouraging a robust commercial marketplace a key part of their space policy… Current policy is that these excess assets can be used to meet government requirements but they may not be used to compete with commercial operators," DalBello said. "We have no issue with companies using this technology to compete – just not using assets that the government paid for."
DalBello also argued there is very little need for launch vehicles for at least one subset of the payload range Orbital ATK is aiming to serve: 1500-1800 kgs. The current launch vehicles in this range – Russia's Soyuz and PSLV, and Europe's Vega, for example – are primarily launching government satellites and aggregations of smaller commercial satellites, he stressed.
"They are positing the existence of a unicorn, a class of un-served commercial payloads in the 1500-1800 lb range," DalBello said. "If you look at what current vehicles in this range – Soyuz, PSLV, Vega – are launching there are just not very many commercial payloads here."