A Brewing Battle Over the Small Launch Industry


There is a small, but potentially significant battle brewing between would-be launch providers in one segment of the rocket industry which has seen little development in recent years. How it plays out may say quite a bit about the degree to which the aerospace establishment is seeking to maintain its base wherever it can, and whatever the cost.

While SpaceX has already completely disrupted the EELV class of intermediate lift boosters, and the smallest end of the industry is set to be swept by a wave of new providers including Firefly Space Systems, Rocket Lab and Virgin Galactic, the United States is a virtual non-player in the category of smallish rockets which can lift anywhere from 500 to 3000 lbs. to LEO.

At present, the only active provider is Orbital ATK, which is pressing lawmakers to make a change in existing policy which would open the door to increased business, but one which could hamper new entrants and ultimately set this segment of the launch market back, even as others press ahead.

At the heart of the issue is governmental policy regarding the use of de-commissioned Peacekeeper ICBM motors as launch vehicle first stages. Orbital ATK has a limited presence in the form of Minotaur rockets, which are reserved for governmental missions for which there are no acceptable commercial alternatives. The need for that determination comes from the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1998, which was crafted to prevent new launch development efforts from being undermined by a glut of low cost solid rocket motors which had already been paid for by the military.

Orbital ATK does offer a commercial version of the Minotaur, called Minotaur C. It utilizes newly built Castor first stages based on the Peacemaker, but the company has had difficulty securing orders in the face of international competition. As a result, it would very much like see Congressional language changed and gain access to the stock of retired motors for which it would be the only practical integrator. Its argument is that the United States is being penalized in this segment of the market by failing to make better use of a taxpayer funded resource at the same time other national enterprises are actively subsidizing their own efforts. That argument is not without merit.

In particular, Europe, Russia and India all offer launchers in this size class, and all enjoy substantial governmental support. In Europe, the Italian built Vega booster, which is the smallest of three offerings from Arianespace, has a reference mission performance of 1500 kg to a 700 km orbit.

Initially designed to compete with lower cost Russian rockets such as Rockot and Dnepr which are based on converted ICBM’s, development of the Vega rocket was underwritten by the European Space Agency, and the booster has completed a 6 flight test regimen. Marketed at 22-32 million Euro per launch, it is now lining up a string of customers, including U.S. based Skybox Imaging which is also a customer for Minotaur C.

For its part, India is also seeking a broader commercial role for the wildly successful Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle or PSLV. Moreover, India’s counterpart to NASA, the Indian Space Research Organization, has recently taken steps to partially privatize the booster by shifting production to its commercial affiliate, Antrix Corporation. Indian efforts to break through trade restrictions on the PSLV have run into a wall of opposition from the domestic launch industry, even as U.S. based companies seeking to launch cubesats, or other small satellites have lobbied for its inclusion. Their argument is that the PSLV’s combination of extreme reliability and reasonable pricing could be a valuable opportunity at time when it is still difficult to find rides to at any price.

Countering that argument is the field of emerging small or micro launch providers whose rockets generally fall beneath the performance requirements for single satellites which might otherwise fly on Minotaur, Vega or PSLV boosters, but can still service cubesats, as well as other classes of small satellites which comprise a growing portion of their customer base. For these companies, subsidized competition, whether at home or abroad, comprises an existential threat.

Those concerns got a little bigger late last week, when General John Hyten, head of the US Air Force Space Command, speaking at the 32nd Annual Space Symposium in Colorado, suggested there should be a way to utilize the stock of Peacekeeper motors without jeopardizing commercial efforts. While any such accommodation would clearly benefit Orbital ATK, there is yet another governmental player involved which could upset the applecart even further.

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been pursuing several launch vehicle development programs during recent years, none of which have reached the development stage. The one exception may be XS-1 program, which last year saw three first round bids issued to a surprising combination of new and old space firms.

The XS-1 would be a partially reusable launch system featuring a fully reusable winged first stage lofting an expendable second stage capable of placing up to 3000 lbs into LEO. The cost goal is $5 million per launch, a 10 fold reduction over existing costs, and a key program metric is the ability to fly 10 times in 10 days. As with many DARPA programs, the XS-1 has both military and commercial applications, with ambitions seemingly set just beyond the reach of what is currently considered practical in the very near term. DARPA is counting on significant industry contributions if and when the XS-1 program reaches the development stage. That fact would seem to be at odds with the Air Force’s apparent intentions to unload its stockpile of Peacemaker motors on the same market segment, not to mention the business plans of whichever emerging small launch providers are not part of the winning team.

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  1. “… General John Hyten, head of the US Air Force Space Command, speaking at the 32nd Annual Space Symposium in Colorado, suggested there should be a way to utilize the stock of Peacekeeper motors without jeopardizing commercial efforts. ….”

    I’m intrigued. What did he suggest. There’s no immediately obvious mention of it in his keynote. Was this during Q&A? Another session?


    Was he alluding to it in this keynote remark?

    “We’ll talk about the Space Enterprise Vision in detail tomorrow in a classified session because we need to share this with industry and we will….”

    I know, I know: you COULD tell me. But then you’d have to kill me.

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