Getting to Space : Looking Ahead in 2013

The One Sure Flight for 2013 Credit: Star Trek

The One Sure Flight for 2013
Credit: Star Trek

As spaceship Earth embarks on another trip around the Sun,  it’s an appropriate occasion to take a look ahead at the New Year and consider what developments might take place which could change the fundamental cost basis of reaching orbit.

Suborbital Space:  After seemingly  endless delays, 2013 is poised to be the breakout year for the reusable suborbital launch industry.  (but then again, so was  2012) While paying customer flights are at least another year away, both XCOR  and Virgin Galactic should be in the position to qualify their respective vehicles over the next 12 months. Meaningful progress in rapid turnaround and re-flight of suborbital systems such as the Lynx Mark I  and SS2/VSS Enterprise should lead to the later introduction of small expendable upper stages, as well as make a dent in the major conceptual barrier that isolated, fully expendable launches are still an acceptable solution for the future.

Blue Origin:  It is always difficult to tell what, if anything is occurring with Blue Origin, but given the enormous potential for a second credible effort at reusable orbital transportation to change the entire trajectory of the launch industry, now would be a good time to pull back the veil.

SpaceX:  Elon Musk’s company clearly stole the show last year with the first ever private flight to the International Space Station.  If anything, 2013 offers the promise of even more significant developments beginning with the introduction of the Falcon 9 V1.1.  If  the company can follow suit with a highly anticipated GSO launch later in the year, then the company’s presence in the international commercial launch market will be solidified, and  other players notably Arianespace, will start to sweat in earnest.

As the centerpiece of the Falcon Heavy, a successful  2013 launch campaign for the Falcon  9 V1.1 also improves the odds that the end of this new year will see the game changing rocket sitting on the pad and aimed at making 2014 the year that everything changes.

Finally, will the Grasshopper re-usable test vehicle continue to shrink the gap between  short test flights and a Mach  6 return from boost.  If there is any one development most likely to shake the lethargy of established launch providers in the coming year, or in 2014, this is it.

Orbital Sciences:  Probably nobody has as much on the line in 2013 as OSC.  With SpaceX already having passed its initial challenge in completing the COTS program and making the first CRS contracted delivery to ISS,  OSC suffers the additional challenge of undertaking its own test program for the Antares launch vehicle and the Cygnus supply ship in the light of SpaceX’s recent accomplishments.  While no-one would characterize OSC as a “Newspace” company , it still occupies a unique position in the launch industry,  between the newer companies such as SpaceX and established heavies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin.  A successful  introduction of the Antares, its first liquid fueled launch vehicle, could provide the confidence necessary to take a bolder approach to its recently established partnership with Stratolaunch, and place additional pressure on ULA to innovate or abdicate.

United Launch Alliance:  ULA promised lower launch costs if only it could receive security in the form of a block buy.  Now it has one,  so the time to deliver is at hand. If ever there was a situation where the technological capability outkicked the coverage,  this is it. And yet there has been virtually nothing on the developmental front to suggest that ULA  acknowledges the changing landscape of the launch industry. While the three year effort to secure a block buy has apparently proved successful, it is the aerospace equivalent of playing a prevent defense, which all too often only succeeds in preventing victory.    Supported by its ongoing special relationship with the Air Force, as well as a solid future with NASA,  ULA isn’t going anywhere for the moment, but if promised cost reductions do not appear, it may be increasingly marginalized as a commercial vendor.  Is 2013 the year a long term plan to change the two rocket paradigm finally emerges?

We often find our greatest accomplishments in the contest between  two outstanding adversaries; Just as Affirmed needed Alydar, the Yankees need the Red Sox,  Michigan needs Ohio State and Alabama needs Auburn (though sadly, not this year) SpaceX may finds its greatest accomplishments come when a suitable rival for lowering the cost of space transportation emerges on the scene, particularly one which accepts the concept of a level playing field as one of the rules of the game.  ULA has the experience and the expertise, but do they have the will?

NASA:   Will the newly re-elected Obama Administration develop a coherent space policy which garners support both inside and outside the agency, or will the meandering continue?

Arianespace: Having decided in November 2012 to kick the can down the road in determining  a future course of response to SpaceX, one wonders if a third alternative to two tepid proposals, Ariane V ME or Ariane VI might emerge.

Russian Space:  With reform efforts undertaken in 2012 showing little progress to date, the upcoming year could be a make or break for the world’s oldest launch infrastructure.

Skylon:  Reaction Engines made news in 2012 with the announcement of successful test of a flight weight pre-cooler for its SABRE engine.  Beginning this year, the company is embarking on a multiyear effort to produce a full working engine and a test rig. Although there is not likely to be a major development in the coming months, continuing progress on this truly revolutionary system may begin to sink in with other players, and add to the sense that events are in motion, and that resting is not merely rusting, it is giving up.

China: Proceeding methodically in its evolution of the Long March family of rockets, all indications are that 2014 will be the earliest likely year of change with the introduction of the Lox/ Kerosene powered Long March 5.

Wildcard: While the high costs and long development times make the space launch industry particularly unsuited for sudden dramatic surprises, there is always the chance other developments within the broader space sector could change the way we view our space launch capability.  In that light, it is always possible that should the coming year offer revelations about previously undetected Earth crossing asteroids,  or a real discovery from the Curiosity rover on Mars,  or perhaps even from the confirmation of Earthlike planet in a nearby star system,  that reducing the costs and getting out into space sooner rather than later, takes on new emphasis. That’s what is compelling about the beginning of a new year, as a certain Vulcan might say “there are always possibilities.”

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