Welcome to Edition 1.43 of the Rocket Report! Lots of news this week, including new efforts in Japan and New Jersey, of all places, to develop spaceports. Also, NASA’s plans to land humans on the Moon by the end of 2024 continues to reverberate through the heavy-launch industry.
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Small-launch reckoning looms. In an extended interview, Rocket Lab chief Peter Beck talks about what he’s learned running through the gamut of starting a company, developing a rocket, and then moving from development into operations. “If I look back, getting to orbit was kind of hard, but actually once you get to orbit the work’s not really done,” he says. “Until you reach orbit, you’re really only thinking about yourself. The whole world revolves around your test flight. But when you start flying customers, it’s a whole different world.”
Beck still envisions a vibrant economy for the small-satellite launch industry, but he rolls his eyes when he sees pitches that include numbers like a trillion-dollar market for launch. “The numbers seem to get bigger and bigger,” he said. “We’re a pretty conservative bunch, and when you take that kind of approach to satellites, you end up at a point where there are really only enough for one or two small launch vehicles. I just don’t see hundreds of launches available for many, many companies. I’d expect some pretty decent consolidation over the next year to 18 months.”
Air Force investing in smallsat launch. In a teleconference with reporters Thursday, the US Air Force announced that it had purchased five small launches to send 21 experimental satellites to space by the end of December. It paid $25 million. One of the launches will be flown by Rocket Lab and another by Vox Space, which uses Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne vehicle. The Air Force did not specify who will fly the other three missions, reports.
… The Air Force is seeing a growing demand for smaller satellites “that need an affordable ride to space,” Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the Launch Enterprise Systems Directorate at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center. While the first launches will be for experimental missions, the Air Force is already building small satellites for operational needs and will look to the growing smallsat launcher community to get them into orbit. (submitted by Ken the Bin and Unrulycow)
Vector targeting two launches in 2019. The micro-launch company is continuing to make progress toward space, and intends to launch two rockets this year, CEO Jim Cantrell told Ars. “Basically, we’ve had to revise our development plan,” said Cantrell, who had previously hoped to see Vector make its first space launch in 2018. “No rocket’s ever been late; we’ll probably be the first one,” he added, with a laugh.
… Vector’s new plan targets the launch of a suborbital rocket, Vector-R B1001, for June. (There is no formal launch date yet set, Cantrell said, because “stuff happens.”) This mission will have a customer, but Cantrell isn’t ready to say who yet. Then, before the end of the year, the company intends to fly its first orbital rocket, Vector-R B1003, from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska. We’ll see what happens.
Korean small rocket moving forward. The Korean space agency, KARI, announced this week that it has completed work on the “engineering model” of the first-stage oxidizer tank for its KSLV-II rocket. This is South Korea’s first indigenously developed rocket, and it will have the capacity to lift 2.6 tons to LEO. The agency says the rocket’s first flight remains on track for 2021.
… KARI also said qualification and flight models of the oxidizer tank would follow soon. The rocket’s first stage burns LOX and RP-1 fuel, as do its second and third stages. The goal is to lift not just Korean satellites but also to become a player on the commercial market with a cost-competitive booster. As ever, the small-satellite launch provider market grows more crowded.
Virgin talking to UAE about future flights. Virgin Galactic has quietly signed an agreement that could lead to SpaceShipTwo suborbital flights from the United Arab Emirates, Parabolic Arc reports. The agreement “outlines cooperation across a range of areas including plans to bring Virgin Galactic spaceflights to the UAE for education, science and technology research, as well as potential space tourism flights in the future.”
… Last year, Virgin Galactic signed a similar agreement with two Italian companies to conduct SpaceShipTwo flights from the southern part of the country. Pararbolic Arc suggests the Italian and UAE agreements may cause concern in New Mexico (SpaceShipTwo’s primary spaceport) about drawing away ticket holders to other locations. The state government and Dona Ana and Sierra counties have poured about $225 million in tax dollars into Spaceport America and related infrastructure. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Private launch site eyed in Japan. A joint venture has announced plans to build Japan’s first private-sector launch site, the reports. Located on the southernmost point of the main Honshu island, the site allows for launches over the Pacific Ocean. Space One, funded by four companies, including Canon Electronics Inc. and Shimizu Corp., said construction will begin by the end of this year.
… Space One’s proposed booster has an advertised capacity of 250kg to low Earth orbit, and the company says it will begin launching from the proposed site in 2021. By the mid-2020s, the company aspires to launch dozens of rockets into space a year—more ambitious plans from yet another company. We’ll see. Rocket Lab has a substantial head start in this size category. (submitted by MarsGrownPotato)
Atlantic City considering launch-site potential. New Jersey lawmakers want to explore the idea of launching commercial spacecraft from Atlantic City International Airport, and they have introduced a bill that would create a nine-member commission to study the feasibility of the airport “successfully pursuing and economically maintaining” licensing as a launch site, Atlantic County reports.
… “With private companies like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and Orion Span investing millions of dollars in new technologies and infrastructure to create a space tourism industry, it just makes sense to explore the possibility,” State Sen. Chris Brown said. The inclusion of Orion Span along with Virgin and Blue Origin suggests to us that New Jersey officials may be drinking a little too much of the new-space Kool-Aid.