Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Changing Business Of Getting Into Space

An Atlas V rocket launching the MAVEN mission to Mars. The Atlas V will play a role in major developments announced this week. Photo credit: NASA

After the usual summer lull, space policy events in DC are shifting back into gear. Several events I attended over the last couple of days coincided with a some major announcements that provided plenty of fodder for conversation.

Tuesday featured the long awaited announcement by NASA of its selection of companies to provide transportation of crewmembers to the International Space Station. NASA's selection of SpaceX and Boeing to provide crew transportation marks a milestone toward implementing the nation's commercial crew policy and in restoring full American access to space.

The FAA used the occasion of its Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) meeting this week in Washington, DC to announce its decision to grant a spaceport license to Midland International Airport in Texas, where XCOR Aerospace is planning to establish operations and will be joined by supporting companies including Orbital Outfitters. Midland is the ninth spaceport to be licensed in the US and is the first where commercial space activities will coexist with regular scheduled airline service.

The most surprising announcement this week was the partnership between United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Blue Origin to develop a version of Blue Origin's BE-4 rocket engine to eventually replace the Russian RD180 engine in ULA's Atlas V rocket that launches many US national security, NASA and commercial missions. The BE-4 is a 21st Century engine design that is in some ways simpler and more efficient than older American or Russian engines. The BE-4 is a liquid oxygen/methane engine that produces 2.45 million newtons (550,000 lbf.) of thrust and is designed to be reusable.

While ULA has not indicated any plans to use the reusability feature in its Atlas V launcher, the partnership provides Blue Origin with an infusion of cash plus the opportunity to gain significant flight experience with the BE-4 that can be applied to the company's own planned reusable launch vehicles. SpaceX, the main domestic competitor of ULA and Blue Origin, is already aggressively developing reusability into its vehicles. With a major part of the US launch industry developing reusable vehicle capabilities, launch companies in other nations are likely to step up their efforts in this direction. The end result of this competition will be that access to space will become significantly cheaper and humanity will move toward becoming a truly spacefaring civilization.

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