Supersonic Man

June 3, 2018

Trends in rocketry

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,science! — Supersonic Man @ 11:07 am

I’ve been taking an interest in the space industry and orbital rockets — a field which is evolving very rapidly nowadays.  So far this year we’ve seen the debut orbital flights of the Electron, the Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9 Block 5, and seen a new record set for the smallest rocket to put up a working satellite.  In the remaining months, we’re expecting the maiden flights of the LauncherOne, the Kuaizhou 11, the Vector R, and the Starliner and Dragon 2 crew capsules.  We just might see one of those capsules take live astronauts to the Space Station by the end of the year.  And the next couple of years will have plenty of action too, with several lunar landers being sent up by different countries, and more new vehicles making their debut: the SLS, the Vulcan, the New Glenn, the Dream Chaser, and more.

With so much short-term activity, it may be hard to spot the longer term trends, but I think I can lay out a few here:

1.  China is rapidly overtaking Russia as a superpower in space.

China now has three different families of major rockets, and are planning a fourth which, if they pull it off, will be bigger than Apollo.  They also have three different types of small solid rocket in service.  They’re starting on their own space station, and will attempt next year to bring moon rocks back to Earth.  Their rate of satellite launches is comparable to that of market leader SpaceX, while Russian rockets are losing business.  Trying to compare budgets can be misleading when different currencies are used, but on paper, the Chinese are spending more.  Their level of investment and ambition is impressive.

The Russians, on the other hand, are struggling to consolidate programs and cut costs.  Their Angara modular rocket program (which was supposed to modernize their fleet) is in difficulty, and rival aerospace organizations are fighting over shares of a shrinking pie.  They’re trying to phase out obsolete systems such as the Soyuz, and finding them difficult to replace.  And they’ve alienated Ukraine, where some of the best rocket builders from the old days are based.  For small solid-fuel launchers, all they’ve got is one type which is made from recycled ICBMs, which they quit using in 2006 but are now trying to bring back.  Unless China runs into difficulties in the next few years, Russia will soon be the #3 spacefaring nation, if they aren’t already.

You have to give respect to the Russians as the O.G.s of spaceflight, but I would say a weaker Russia in space is a good thing, as long as Putin or anyone like him remains in power.  But on the other hand, for a bunch of top Russian rocket experts to be looking for jobs, eager to be hired by dubious regimes, is probably not a good thing.

2. SpaceX is slowly decimating traditional aerospace companies who build large rockets, and nobody looks likely to beat them.

At first, SpaceX launched expendable rockets, just as everyone else did.  It took them years to develop a booster that could land itself dependably, then a bunch more time to show that these landed boosters could be refurbished into flyable condition, then more time yet to study the lessons learned from refurbishing, and upgrade the rocket so it can hopefully be reflown without needing an overhaul.  They still have not yet reached the point where they can launch a rocket, land it, wash off the soot, refuel it, and launch it again the next day, which is their goal.  They believe it’s close now, that their “Block 5” is the rocket that can do it… but they haven’t proven it yet.

And yet in spite of how the great cost savings promised by rapid reuse are still just a hope for the future, they are already undercutting the prices of all the traditional launch providers who sell large rockets, forcing them to lower their margins and reduce costs.  In fact, they have been for years.

Since a lot of launches are still done by governments, there’s a lot of inertia which keeps big government contractor rocket builders such as United Launch Alliance in business… but to the extent they’re exposed to the free market, they’re hemorrhaging customers.  This hits the Russian rocket builders particularly hard.  They haven’t got a path forward to cut costs with reuse.  Both ULA and the EU’s Arianespace do have such plans, though they will take years to implement, but as yet the Russians have nothing.  The for-profit parts of their space businesses are already shifting their investment from making rockets to building satellites, which is where the money now is.  The Chinese also have nothing yet, but in their case there seems to be a lot of willingness for the government to keep propping up uncompetitive rockets, including models that already have superior replacements in use, while also developing new ones.  That can’t keep up forever, but it shouldn’t have to: they’re looking at the question of reuse and are bound to figure something out eventually.

Speaking of the plans of ULA and Arianespace, what they’ve got coming is probably sufficient to match the price cuts that SpaceX has brought to the industry so far, but if rapid reuse works it will start a second round of cost-cutting, and it seems likely that both will remain years behind if they attempt to catch up.  The plans they have in the works now are conservative, and won’t be able to make a really dramatic difference in cost — they’re both aiming to recover only the engines at the bottom, while still discarding the rest of the rocket.  Those engines are the most expensive part, but they only account for around half of the total cost of a launch.  (Arianespace is also now starting a small scale research program for vertical landing, just to see whether it’s a technique they might eventually want to use, but they have no firm plans yet to follow it up with anything commercial.)

So who is there who is in a position to compete?  Really, only one company is looking good right now.  It’s the one other company which has already implemented soft landings and reuse: Blue Origin.  They’re the only ones in a position to challenge SpaceX head-on.  But even they may struggle to compete, regardless of how much Amazon money they have behind them, because their forthcoming New Glenn rocket is too big.  It’s probably going to be even more powerful than SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy (which can orbit thirty tons and still land all three boosters).  And I note that when SpaceX first planned the Heavy, they thought it would end up doing half of their business, but over time, its role is getting smaller and smaller.  They are not finding many customers for such heavy lifting.  A lighter rocket with the same technology can probably offer a better price to the majority of customers.  The New Glenn also has a much larger, and presumably much costlier, second stage than the Falcon has, and they’ve got no plans for making that stage reusable, so that puts a floor under how low they can cut their prices.  And in general, Blue Origin has a more conservative engineering approach than SpaceX does, and this leads to much less aggressive cost reduction.

I think the only way that Blue Origin is likely to come out ahead is if either there’s an unforeseen boom in large heavy payloads, or if SpaceX develops a bad safety record while Blue Origin’s remains clean due to taking more time and care than SpaceX does.  That scenario is definitely plausible… but the safe bet is definitely on SpaceX.

Speaking of rockets that are too big, the shortage of heavy customers may leave SpaceX regretting the size of the fully reusable “BFR” system they plan to build in the next decade.  They might find that the most profitable rocket they could have built is just like a BFR but only a fifth as massive.  The dramatically low costs they say the BFR will bring might not materialize if the market for large payloads remains limited.

But even if the BFR proves to be too large, SpaceX still has the upper hand, because every other approach has a per-flight hardware cost floor that the technology can’t go below, while the BFR, if it works, could in theory fly for only the cost of the fuel.

There is one wildcard company which might challenge these two: Reaction Engines Ltd, makers of the SABRE engine.  They say they’ll be able to use it to make a single stage orbital spaceplane, but even if they don’t, a suborbital plane which acts as a substitute for a booster stage could end up being quite competitive.

Whether Blue Origin or Reaction Engines succeeds or not, I think the large rocket market is likely to see a shakeout.  The Russians are feeling it already, and ULA was wise to plan ahead for replacing their Atlas and Delta lines with the more competitive Vulcan.  ULA has had to shed employees, but I think they’re responding fairly well to the challenge, and the fact that their existing rockets have the best success record in the business may count for a lot.  They’ll never catch SpaceX on price but I suppose they should still have customers at the more premium end of the launch market, especially if human safety is involved.  In the end, though, even the survivors will probably have to downsize.  And a company like Orbital ATK, which has no idea how to do reuse and has no chance at winning on either cost or track record, might be completely out in the cold.  They just got bought up by Northrop Grumman, who may have little incentive to invest further in orbital launch capability, as that’s probably not the part of the company that attracted them.

3. The shortage of small commercial launch services could easily become a glut… but the resulting balance could be vulnerable.

While SpaceX and its ilk get the attention with their big rockets, most of the satellites that people would like to launch don’t need a big rocket.  Rocket Labs’ Electron, with its capacity of around a quarter ton, is big enough to cover about two thirds of the commercial market, they estimate.

There are lots of older small rockets, many of them based on solid fuel missiles, but their costs per kilogram are usually uncompetitive with the otherwise less attractive option of waiting to hitch a ride as a secondary payload on a large rocket.  But now there are new companies such as Rocket Labs which aim to bring the cost of small launches downward.  The trouble is, there are too many new companies.  They’re cropping up in many different countries.  They can’t all get the dozens of launches a year that they will probably need in order to become profitable.  Also, the Chinese are rapidly commercializing their small solid-fuel launchers, at cheap prices.  Small-launch industry insiders are already starting to mutter the word shakeout, even though for the moment there is still a long backlog of unmet demand.

I will note that none of these small launch companies is yet offering anything truly revolutionary in terms of cost lowering.  They’re all just reducing costs incrementally.  None of them, for instance, has any solid plans to embrace reusability, except for one small outfit in Spain which is probably years away from putting up its first satellite.  If someone does, they could make this whole batch of companies uncompetitive.

Some of them are hoping that reduced prices will lead to increased volume, but the reductions being hyped just aren’t that dramatic.  It’s in the large launch market that such dramatic price cuts may have a major effect.  If SpaceX succeeds at rapid reuse, they could cut their prices far below anyone else’s without any sweat at all, giving them something fairly close to a monopoly on large non-governmental launches, or a duopoly if Blue Origin matches them.  (Or perhaps more likely, they could keep their prices higher so the market remains more open and competitive, but make a huge profit margin.)  But nothing equivalent is on the horizon in the small market.  They not only seem likely to spread their market too thin, but also to fall even further behind on cost compared to the option of piggybacking on large launches.

Conclusion: what the market is missing is a highly reusable small launcher.

If some company wants to disrupt SpaceX the way they disrupted the aerospace dinosaurs, the way to do it is to make a rocket which takes advantage of the latest advances in reusability, and applies it to payloads of under one ton.  It would not be all that expensive to develop; such a venture would be easily within the reach of some existing aerospace companies, or of the Russians.  But it may be out of reach of most of the small startups currently pursuing the light launch market.

Or it may not.  Rather than developing the complex systems that allow rockets to land themselves on concrete pads, a small booster might easily be recovered with a simple parachute, and if you can snatch it out of the air before it hits the ground or the drink, it might be very easily refurbished.  More than one small-launch company is adding parachutes to their boosters in the hopes that they might recover some intact, and at least one is waterproofing it, in the hope that it can splash down undamaged.  And if the empty rocket weights only a ton or less, instead of the thirty or so that a heavy booster might weigh, then snagging a parachute with a helicopter or airplane is actually quite doable.  The Air Force has done it for years, and United Launch Alliance is planning to use this approach to recover their jettisoned engines.  This cheap lightweight approach might not sound technically impressive, but if done right it could mean a big price advantage for small satellite launches.

If light rocket reuse is as difficult as it was for SpaceX’s heavy rockets, then we might again be seeing one company push all others aside.  But if it’s much easier, as I hope it can be, then several outfits might do it and competition could remain wide open, while bringing prices way down for small customers.  Solid-fuel rockets might become obsolete for commercial launches, because there’s no way to make them cheaper.

The one company that could easily and quickly bring full-blown modern reusability to the small launch business is Blue Origin.  They already have, in the New Shepard, a reusable booster stage of about the right size; all they need to do is create a second stage for it.

Woops, there is one company now developing a small reusable launcher: Boeing.  Their Phantom Express spaceplane, developed for the Pentagon’s XS-1 program, would take off vertically from a transporter-erector-launcher, and land on a runway.  Its second stage would be expendable, but it would also be small, as the plane would get to higher suborbital speeds than most boosters do.  As yet this vehicle is intended solely for use by the military, who are more interested in rapid turnaround than in saving money, but if it succeeds at that it’s bound to be a hit commercially as well.

It’s the sort of complex system that only a big established aerospace company is likely to pull off, but costwise, simpler and cheaper approaches such as parachute-grabbing could be very competitive with it.

This is still a few years away, and commercialization would be a few years after that, but the writing is now officially on the wall for makers of expendable small launchers.


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