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Commentary

The Year Ahead in Commercial Space Transportation

by phil smith

2011 Summary

Eighty-four orbital launches were conducted in 2011. Nineteen of these were internationally competed commercial launches. Six of the 84 were unsuccessful flights involving a Russian Rockot, a Russian Proton, two Russian Soyuz vehicles, a U.S. Taurus XL vehicle, and a Chinese Long March 2C. One of those flights, the Proton, was a commercial mission carrying an Express AM4 communication satellite.

For the United States, a commercial launch is considered one that has been procured through a competitive bidding process or has been licensed by Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. In 2011, out of 18 total launches conducted by the U.S. none were commercial. However, the FAA did license one launch, that of a Sea Launch mission carrying Eutelsat’s Atlantic Bird 7. Sea Launch missions are licensed by the FAA because operations are partly conducted on U.S. territory.

Since 2000, the number of U.S. commercial orbital launches has fluctuated from five to 10 per year. The medium- to heavy-class U.S. launch industry has been focused mainly on marketing to the U.S. Government. The main players are United Launch Alliance (ULA, a joint company established by Lockheed Martin and Boeing providing the Delta II, Delta IV, and Atlas V) and Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orbital, which provides the Pegasus XL, Taurus, and Minotaur). While these vehicles (except Minotaur, which is provided exclusively to the Department of Defense) are available to international customers, they are not actively marketed to them. In 2011, ULA conducted 11 launches consisting of five Atlas V vehicles, three Delta II vehicles, and three Delta IV vehicles. Orbital Sciences Corporation conducted four launches during the year, featuring three flights of its Minotaur and one unsuccessful flight of a Taurus XL. Also during the year, NASA conducted the final three missions of the Space Shuttle Program, concluding a three-decade run featuring 135 missions. SpaceX, a new U.S. launch provider, did not conduct any launches in 2011.

In 2011, Arianespace conducted seven commercial launches. Four of these featured the company’s venerable Ariane 5 carrying a total of eight commercial satellites into orbit. One Ariane 5 carried ATV 2, a cargo vehicle, to the International Space Station (ISS). Finally, Arianespace inaugurated Soyuz 2 services from its launch center in Kourou by conducted two flights, both for government clients. Russia conducted a total of 32 orbital launches, 11 of which were commercial. Russia’s ILS conducted seven flights using the Proton M, and Starsem (two flights), ISC Kosmostras (one flight), and Land Launch (one flight) conducted a total of four commercial launches. One commercial launch (the aforementioned Proton M carrying Express AM4) and three government launches ended in failure. China conducted a record 19 orbital launches in 2011, two of which were commercial. The country did experience one failure, that of a Long March 2C carrying a military payload called Shinjian 11-04. India successfully conducted three non-commercial orbital launches during the year, and Japan successfully launched two H-IIA vehicles carrying government payloads and one H-IIB vehicle carrying HTV-2 to ISS. Finally, Iran conducted one orbital launch of a remote sensing satellite in the summer.

Russia continues to dominate in the world in total number of launches (32). It is worth noting that China surpassed the number of orbital launches conducted by the United States (18) for the first time in history. In terms of commercial flights, a trend continues: Russia and Europe lead the way with commercial launches, usually in that order. China conducted two commercial launches and there was only a single Sea Launch mission. The U.S. conducted no commercial launches in 2011.

2012

It is not uncommon for delays and schedule slips to occur in the space industry, and 2011 was no exception. However, some firsts projected in 2010 for 2011 did take place for Europe and China. France-based Arianespace inaugurated Soyuz 2 services from its launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, and China launched its first space station module into orbit.

California-based SpaceX offers the intermediate-class Falcon 9 and eventually the Falcon 9 Heavy. It also offers DragonLab, a reusable, crewed spacecraft designed to be carried by a Falcon 9. DragonLab provides unpressurized and pressurized environments for a variety of applications to any paying customer. DragonLab is based on Dragon, a cargo supply vehicle developed by the company under a NASA contract to service the ISS. SpaceX is under contract to provide 12 Dragon cargo flights to ISS, with the first flight tentatively scheduled for February of this year. The company no longer markets the Falcon 1, and satellites once manifested for this vehicle have since been reassigned to Falcon 9 vehicles as secondary payloads.

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft approaches the ISS in an artist's anticipation of the upcoming Feburary 2012 event. - Image credit: SpaceX

Though originally planned for introduction in 2011, Orbital Sciences Corporation will introduce its Antares vehicle early in 2012, which will launch from Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS). The Taurus II was renamed Antares to avoid confusion with the company’s smaller Taurus XL. This first Antares flight will carry a test version of the Cygnus cargo vehicle designed to resupply ISS under a NASA contract. Beginning this year, Orbital is contracted to provide eight Cygnus flights to ISS through 2017. Meanwhile, the company’s satellite manufacturing remains robust, serving government and commercial clients worldwide.

Meanwhile, ULA is expected to provide about 14 flights of the Atlas V and Delta IV, though none will be commercial. Orbital is expected to provide several flights, including two Antares flights, two Pegasus XL flights, and a few Minotaur flights for the Air Force. SpaceX may have its busiest year to date with five Falcon 9 missions planned, including two destined for ISS.

Space Shuttle Orbiters Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour are undergoing decommissioning this year and distribution of the vehicles to museums will commence in April with delivery of Discovery to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM). Atlantis will be delivered to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, and Endeavour will be delivered to the California Science Center in Los Angeles, California. Enterprise, currently on display at NASM’s Udvar-Hazy Center, will be relocated to the Intrepid Museum in New York City. With the Space Shuttle now retired, crew access to ISS will be limited to Russia’s Soyuz, and four flights of these are planned during the year. Supply flights to ISS will include six Progress flights from Russia, one ATV from Europe, one HTV from Japan, two Dragons from SpaceX, and one Cygnus from Orbital.

Russia will likely launch about 30-35 flights, which is on par with previous years, and 40 percent of those are likely to be commercial based on historical trends. Arianespace is expected to launch more than its average of about 6-7 flights per year due to introduction of the Soyuz and small-class Vega vehicles. Among other things, Arianespace will continue to deploy Europe’s Galileo navigation satellites, a process that started late last year when the first two satellites were launched aboard a Soyuz 2. China is expected to launch between 10 and 15 vehicles in 2012, including a crewed flight aboard Shenzhou 9. Shenzhou 9 will dock with Tiangong 1, the space station module launched late last year. India will likely launch about 4-5 PSLV vehicles, and may launch one GSLV. Japan will launch an HTV to ISS and two H-IIAs carrying a variety of science payloads. Finally, there are indications Iran may launch more than one payload into orbit during 2012 aboard its Safir 2 vehicle.

As forecast in 2011, the demand for orbital launches is expected to be relatively flat for the next few years, despite the introduction of new vehicles. Several developments in late 2011 and during 2012 may impact the vehicle mix. In late 2011, investor Paul Allen announced a collaboration between his company, Vulcan, and Scaled Composites and SpaceX to develop a vehicle system called Stratolauncher. The system will consist of a dual-fuselage carrier aircraft built by Scaled and a horizontally launched rocket built by SpaceX. Operational flights are expected to begin in the 2016 time frame. In addition, the U.S. Army continues work on a small vehicle called the Multipurpose Nanomissile System (MNMS) capable of carrying about 10 kilograms to orbit, and the U.S. Air Force recently announced that designs for a reusable booster system are underway. Russia appears to be maintaining development of the Angara vehicle, though details of the program are scant. China continues to work on its Long March 5, 6, and 7 vehicles, planned for introduction in 2014, and South Korea keeps pressing on with KSLV development despite setbacks in previous years.

During 2012, NASA will announce the third round of winners for the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program, this time with less than the $850 million requested in the President’s FY2012 budget. The third round, like the second issued in 2011, will allow SpaceX (Dragon), Blue Origin (orbital vehicle components and crew escape systems), Sierra Nevada Corporation (Dream Chaser), and Boeing (CST-100) to continue work on in-space crew transport vehicles. As with the previous two rounds, CCDev 3 will be awarded in the form of NASA Space Act Agreements, which allow for greater program flexibility under a tightened budget than contracts awarded under Federal Acquisition Regulations. Excalibur Almaz, based on the Isle of Man, is another company hoping to provide crewed flights into space using proven Russian technology from the 1970s as a foundation. It, along with United Launch Alliance (for human rating Atlas V) and ATK (for its Liberty vehicle), received unfunded agreements under CCDev 2. Essentially, this means the three companies will work with NASA on system parameters and other matters, but funding will need to come outside the agency.

In addition to these orbital launch vehicle developments, 2012 may see the emergence of commercial suborbital operations by at least one company. In an interview between CNN’s Piers Morgan and Virgin Group Founder and CEO Sir Richard Branson in December 2011, Branson indicated that spaceflight participant flights conducted by Virgin Galactic will begin in December 2012. These flights will take place aboard the company’s SpaceShipTwo christened VSS Enterprise, which has been undergoing glide flights throughout 2010 and 2011. The Spaceship Company, a joint venture between Virgin Galactic and spacecraft builder Scaled Composites, is manufacturing the SS2 fleet, which will be operated from Spaceport America in New Mexico and other sites around the world. Virgin Galactic will also market seats aboard Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spaceplane, which, under CCDev 2 funding awarded in 2011, will be flight tested using Scaled Composites’ White Knight Two.

Other companies continuing to develop suborbital reusable launch vehicles include Armadillo Aerospace (STIG and Hyperion), Blue Origin (New Shepard), Copenhagen Suborbitals (HEAT X1), Dassault Aviation (VSH), EADS Astrium (Spaceplane), Masten Space (Xogdor and XA-1.0) and SpaceX (Grasshopper), Whittinghill Aerospace (mCLS), and XCOR (Lynx). Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser may also be used for suborbital missions in addition to its orbital role.

Bigelow Aerospace, based in Nevada, may introduce its Sundancer and BA-330 inflatable space station modules in the middle part of this decade. However, in October 2011, Bigelow laid off about 50 people from its Nevada plant because of delays in the development of in-space transportation (such as Boeing’s CST-100) and concerns about the sluggish global economy. The company continues to work on projects, but at a lower level until in-space transportation systems come on line around 2016. Bigelow has partnered with Boeing, having selected CST-100 as the preferred access to Bigelow modules. Boeing also teamed with Space Adventures to sell seats aboard CST-100.

Beyond

The greatest human adventure, that of accessing and eventually industrializing space, is a complex affair involving considerable brain power, bravery, and patience. The epic scale of the endeavor means that one cannot really measure progress on a year-by-year basis. The transition from a planet-bound civilization to a space faring one will take decades if not centuries, and should be seen as an organic process rather than something that can be forced because of will power and money alone. As a result, it can seem frustrating to people who follow such things and who only live an average of 75 years.

But progress is measurable. Things are happening. Eventually, our descendents will look back at this time in history and marvel at the ingenuity, courage, and determination to set foot on a new shore with the intent to explore, pioneer, and ultimately settle outer space. The irony is that most of the work will be done by people who could care less if a job is Earth-related or space-related, as long as the pay and benefits are acceptable, and their children grow up in an intellectually stimulating and prosperous society. Perhaps we are living during the first part of a new industrial revolution, the dawn of a new workforce renaissance. In a time of global economic difficulty and widespread political crises, this is the kind of optimistic outlook we need, and our first century in space exemplifies this.

Phil Smith is a Senior Space Analyst with The Tauri Group based in Alexandria, Virginia. He earned a graduate degree in Space Studies and has worked in the space industry for 13 years. He is also a freelance artist specializing in space subjects.

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3 Responses to “The Year Ahead in Commercial Space Transportation”

  1. D. Messier says:

    The President requested $850 million for commercial crew for FY 2012, not $500 million. Congress saw fit to provide $408 million.

    Given that SpaceShipTwo has not conducted a single powered test flight, Sir Richard’s prediction of commercial mission by Christmas appears to be wishful thinking. That makes it no different from all the other estimates he’s made for years. Virgin Galactic employees who are actually working on the program have mentioned 2013, if they say anything at all.

  2. Phil Smith says:

    Note that I said “less than $500 million.”

    The December 2012 Virgin Galactic flight is a quoted objective of Sir Richard Branson, founder of the company. I focused on facts in this article. Whether his forecast comes to pass is another issue entirely.

  3. Phil Smith says:

    Actually, I see my error in the $500 million. I stand corrected. It should be $850 million.

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