Viewing National Space Investments From a NewSpace Perspective

Vostochny Under Construction. Image Credit The Moscow Times

One question which defines the NewSpace movement, is which individuals, companies, or governments are investing in technologies or systems which have the capacity to significantly reduce the cost of access to space. In the case of the latter, governments, all too often it is just as easy to view investments as at best, a very mixed bag.

There is certainly no lack of development taking place, particularly when it comes to new launch vehicles and the infrastructure which supports them.  The question is, will any of it really matter?

China for instance, has just completed work on its fourth launch site, the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in Hainan province. Located at 19 degrees latitude, a more advantageous vantage point than its other sites, and intended to support the 25 ton Long March 5 booster which is in development, Wenchang is expected to host crewed missions, large components, and geostationary ComSat launches.

Russia meanwhile, is racing to complete work at its own new coastal launch site, the Vostochny Cosomodrome located in that nation’s far east. Like Wenchang, Vostochny is being built to support a new booster series, the slow developing Angara family, which saw its first launch just this year.

Meanwhile, well to south, after years of development, India is preparing for the first test launch of the GSLV Mark III booster designed to give the rising space power the ability to launch its own larger satellites while also gaining a foothold in the international launch market.

Finally, Europe is still struggling, but moving ahead nonetheless with the development decision for Ariane VI, a successor to the Ariane V which will require its own new launch facility in French Guiana.  Almost comically, France is still complaining about the U.S. dumping boosters on the international market, (SpaceX) even as it is preparing to spend billions of Euros on the new booster and its supporting infrastructure.

While each project is likely to increase performance and reduce costs for its host government by some degree, none appears to hold the potential for fundamentally changing the metrics of access to orbit. No big surprises here, but how is it relevant to the aspirations of NewSpace?

When Star Trek IV, The Voyage Home, was screened in Moscow theaters, audiences reportedly roared with laughter at Dr. McCoy’s acerbic observation that “the bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe.”

For NewSpace, it may not be quite so funny.

As we all know, governments have a way of becoming particularly attached to large infrastructure projects, and will continue to support them for years on end, well after better alternatives are readily apparent. Furthermore, through the guise of national security, developing an indigenous capacity or “protecting the industrial base” it is easy to establish both the means and the rationale for doubling down. And, in truth, those arguments frequently have their own merit. But not if your primary objective is to radically lower costs to orbit, and you need access to openly competed international commercial missions to achieve it.

It is a fair bet that after spending large sums on launch development projects, most or all of the nations mentioned are going to feel justified, as France apparently does, in using whatever bureaucratic means are necessary to protect those “investments.” Likely tactics include more broadly restricting domestic markets, engaging emerging nations which are building spacecraft but not launchers with subsidized package deals, and finally gaining a piece of the nominally “open” ComSat markets. And let’s not kid ourselves, the U.S. is hardly any different.

The problem here is that unlike the cubesat and smallsat markets which are growing rapidly but lack a consistent launch solution, the large end of the commercial launch market is considerably more static, offering on average 20-25 opportunities per year.  Quite simply, and until something emerges which causes the market to expand, such as orbital space tourism. the opportunities for meaningful advances in lowering the cost to access are going to be limited to what is currently in progress, namely SpaceX and its pursuit of reusability with the Falcon 9.

In the longer term, the deal struck between Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance offer a hint of promise in developing the BE-4 methane engine and the new launch vehicle which it would necessarily power. Blue Origin after all, is tightly focused on the space tourism market, where SpaceX is not.  The ULA partnership may give the company access to much needed expertise and undeniable experience. On the other hand,  it is at least reasonable to question whether or not Blue Origin will be able to carve out a path separate from its partner, whose own monopolistic tendencies and relationship with the U.S. government rival anything put forward by other nations nations. To that point, new ULA President Tony Bruno was recently quoted in a Denver newspaper as saying he fully expected the Air Force to entertain a new block buy as soon as the current one runs out. Hardly an encouraging sign.

Again, the relevant factor is SpaceX. Early success in recovering and relaunching a Falcon 9 first stage would reverberate at new launch sites around the world. Outside of Arianespace, it is no doubt ULA who would feel it the most profoundly, just possibly driving development decisions for its new and yet to be named booster in the direction of reusability, while leaving the rest of the world’s space agencies to ponder recent decisions and an uncertain future.

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