Dependability is the first requirement in the space launch industry, and risks inherent in fielding new technology encourage continued close co-operation between industry and government.

The spaceliner Orion blasts from the space station hangar deck in one of the enduring images from 2001: A Space Odyssey - Robert McCall's poster art for the film.

About the only thing that dates the image, and the film, is the Pan Am logo on the fuselage of the winged spaceliner. Otherwise, the scene depicted in McCall's painting could still become reality - but not before 2040, according to NASA's latest timeline for the development of highly reusable space transports allowing "airliner-like" launch operations.


Today, the space industry is firmly anchored by a pragmatic approach to the development of new launch vehicles which recognises that low cost with high risk is not a recipe for success. The Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, the groundings of the world's workhorse boosters and the financial failure of Iridium have all helped to lower expectations for the size and pace of the space launch market.

There has also been a recognition, notably in the USA, that government must still take a leading role in the early, risky stages of development of a new launch vehicle. Last year's US Broad Agency Review, following a string of launch failures, found government "must bear the brunt of establishing early confidence in reliability", even for boosters operated commercially.

Today's workhorse boosters may be operated commercially, but most were developed originally with government funding. That is changing. Under the USAir Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) programme, the Department of Defense (DoD) is supporting development of the Boeing Delta IV and Lockheed Martin Atlas V to the tune of $500 million each - but it is not picking up the entire tab for developing the competing commercially operated launcher families.

Sharing the cost of developing systems that will satisfy both government and commercial payload requirements is key to the EELV programme goal of reducing space launch costs by at least 25% over existing expendable boosters. It also exposes the programme to market forces, which have already resulted in adjustments to the scope of the EELV endeavour.

Since the EELV programme was initiated in 1995, the Iridium bankruptcy and other factors have resulted in an overall decline in the launch service market of 7-10%. The decline has been most marked in the near-term demand for launches of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations, a result of the Iridium failure, the market for geostationary (GEO) satellite launches remaining strong, buoyed by exploding internet traffic.

Because of the market shifts, the DoD's share of the EELV market has increased from the originally projected 15-20% to 25-30%. Other users such as NASA will push the government's share of planned launches higher. Recognising the market realities, industry and the DoD have restructured the EELV programme. At the company's request, Lockheed Martin has been released from the requirement to build an Atlas V launch pad on the US West Coast, at Vandenberg AFB, California. As a result, two DoD satellites have been transferred to Boeing Delta IV launches from Vandenberg.

Lockheed Martin had hoped to drop development of the heavylift version of its Atlas V, as it does not foresee sufficient market to support competing vehicles capable of lifting payloads up to 13t (29,000lb) into geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO). Instead, the company has agreed to complete qualification of the Atlas V Heavy, but has no plans to fly the vehicle unless it is called upon by the DoD to back up Boeing's Delta IV Heavy.

Under the restructured EELV programme. Boeing will offer launch services with its complete family of medium to heavy Delta IVs from both Vandenberg and the US East Coast, form a launch pad at Cape Canaveral AFS in Florida. Lockheed Martin will focus on launches of medium and intermediate Atlas Vs from Canaveral.

The first Delta IV launch is planned for November and the first Atlas V for mid-2002. Both will be commercial. The first USAir Force flights will follow in 2002 and 2003, respectively. The international launch services market is intensely competitive, however, and the DoD has recognised that winning market share depends on having a reliable launcher. As a result, the USAF has agreed to fund the first Delta IV Heavy launch to reduce risk. The $141 million launch, in 2003, will carry a simulated heavy payload.

Boosting competition

Entry into service of the EELVs will increase the competitive pressure on Europe's Arianespace, which offers the largest launcher currently available commercially - the Ariane 5, with a payload to GTO of 6.2t. The company is pushing hard to capture the market to launch the increasingly large broadband communications satellites now being developed before the larger EELVs become available.


Ariane was the first expendable launch vehicle to be developed specifically to serve the commercial market, and so far all versions have been developed with government money. That public-private partnership continues in the shape of a European Space Agency programme to enhance Ariane 5's performance. This will take the vehicle's GTO payload capability to 8t next year, 10.5t by 2002 and 12t - rivalling the Delta IV Heavy - by 2006.

As the EELV programme will allow both Boeing and Lockheed Martin to offer a family of launch vehicles, Arianespace has moved to expand its offering by adding two European-backed Russian boosters to its range. The Rockot is a small satellite launcher, based on the SS-19 ballistic missile, built by Khrunichev and marketed by Russian-German company Eurorockot. The Soyuz/ST is a medium-lift launcher, derived from the venerable workhorse of the Russian space programme, built by Samara and marketed by Russian-French company Starsem.

The Russian are already partners in other commercial launch ventures, including the Boeing-led Sea Launch and Lockheed Martin-led International Launch Services (ILS). Sea Launch uses the Energia-built Zenit booster, while ILS markets commercial launches of the Khrunichev-built Proton alongside the Atlas. ILS will also market Khrunichev's new Angara family of boosters, under development to succeed the Proton. The modular family of launchers will become available commercially, alongside the Atlas V, some time after the first launch planned for next year.

Overcoming hurdles

Other players in the launch services market face a variety of hurdles. Japan cancelled its H-2 booster after a series of failures, in favour of developing a cheaper, better H-2A. But a first launch is now unlikely before July. China plans to upgrade its Long March family to reduce cost, increase performance and improve reliability and flexibility, in a bid to make them more competitive. India plans the first flight of its Geostationary Launch Vehicle early next year, but is unlikely to be competitive for several more years.

The space launch market has proved difficult for newcomers to penetrate. After a flurry of activity, US start-up companies developing new low-cost boosters aimed principally at the constellation launch market have been brought down by the aftermath of Iridium's financial failure. Beal Aerospace has ceased operating, as has Rotary Rocket, while Kistler Aerospace has so far failed to secure the funding needed to restart development of its K-1 booster.

Beal has laid the blame for its failure firmly on the doorstep of NASA, and its five-year, $4.5 billion Space Launch Initiative (SLI). The company says the decision to subsidise the development of second-generation reusable launch vehicles (RLV) killed any hopes of making its privately developed BA-2 expendable booster commercially viable.

Ironically, the SLI has been structured to encourage competition, NASA has been stung by the technical problems which have dogged its previous attempt to develop a second-generation RLV - the Lockheed Martin X-33 technology demonstrator and its planned full-scale VentureStar follow-on.

Once planned for this year, the first flight of the suborbital X-33 will not take place before 2003 - and it may never fly if Lockheed Martin and/or NASA decide not to pursue development of the VentureStar under the SLI.

Safety first

By reopening its search for a second-generation RLV, NASA has widened its options while tightening its requirements. One significant change from the X-33/VentureStar -and NASA's justification for starting over - is the introduction of a safety goal equivalent to a risk of crew loss two orders of magnitude lower than the Space Shuttle. This is in addition to the goal of a tenfold reduction in launch cost over the Shuttle.


"We will take all the lessons learned from the other programmes and, over the next five years, get to the point where we have at least two viable contenders for competitive full-scale development of a launch system meeting our safety and cost goals," says Dan Dumbacher, NASA's second-generation RLV programme manager.

Also under the SLI, NASA is looking for two other items: launch services to provide alternate access to the International Space Station (ISS) in case the Shuttle and its backup boosters are not available; and a "lifeboat" able to return the ISS crew the Earth is case of an emergency, and which could form the basis of a "space taxi".

Both have been portrayed as opportunities for new players to enter the space launch business. But the costs and risks, and the investment uncertainties, make it unlikely that any companies other than the "usual suspects" will be in a position to benefit from the SLI.

It is also unlikely, because of US technology and competition concerns, that Europe will be in a position to parlay its partnership on the ISS into a role in the SLI. As a result, Arianespace is pushing for Europe to step up work on RLVs - such as Astrium's Ariane 5-derived Space Hopper concept - in a bid to keep pace with its US launch service rivals.

Source: Flight International