The US Government believes it has thrown the struggling low-cost launch vehicle industry a lifeline in the shape of NASA's Alternative Access to Space Station programme - but it may prove too little, too late. Against the remote, but nonetheless real, possibility that all of the US, Russian, European and Japanese launchers tasked with resupplying the station are unavailable, the Alternate Access programme is intended to allow NASA to buy back-up cargo launches from US service providers.

Although the established launch service companies are involved, the programme is structured to provide an opportunity for emerging launch systems to compete. The intent is to bolster the business cases of small companies trying to develop low-cost boosters commercially.

And those companies certainly need all the help they can get. The collapse of the low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite market following the high-cost failure of Iridium has left the newcomers struggling to find investors. Kistler Aerospace has put development of its reusable K-1 on hold as it tries to raise another $400 million on top of the $500 million already spent. Rotary Rocket's revolutionary Roton has also entered a holding pattern as funds have dried up. A helping hand from the government would seem welcome, but is that hand empty? At best, the space station contingency resupply mission makes up a mere 10% of the US Government's launch requirements. And like the other 90% it has to be competed for - by both established and emerging launch companies. US competition rules bar NASA from signing a long-term launch contract with any company - unfortunately it is just such "anchor tenancy" that investors look for in a business case.

Unless the LEO market recovers, and new medium and GEO geostationary orbit opportunities emerge, the small launch companies will continue to struggle. If they are ever to be in a position to serve NASA, what these companies need is government backing for the development of new low-cost boosters that will then compete for its business. It is the approach taken for the USAir Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle and now for NASA's second-generation reusable launch vehicle. They need a boost, not a lifeline.

Source: Flight International