Posted: 15 September 2016, 1:00 p.m. EDT
Panelists: Moderator Madi Sengrupta, project manager, AIAA; Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive director, Coalition for Deep Space Exploration; Lars Hoffman, senior director of government sales, SpaceX; John Reed, senior technical fellow, United Launch Alliance; John Steinmeyer, director of business development, Launch Vehicle Division, Orbital ATK
by Lawrence Garrett, AIAA web editor
Strong incentive exists for private industry to master launch reusability and open up commercial space opportunities, and collaboration will be key to overcoming many of the challenges and limitations, experts from the world’s leading commercial space launch companies said during the “Launch 2020” forum Sept. 13 at
AIAA SPACE 2016 in Long Beach, California.
“Space 2.0 is the new gold rush of space,” said John Steinmeyer, director of business development for
Orbital ATK’s Launch Vehicle Division, referring to the idea that the main impetus for much of today’s space activity and growth no longer comes from the U.S. government, but instead from the commercial sector.
Steinmeyer noted that the recently merged Orbital ATK is involved in all segments of the market.
“We’re not only mining in Space 2.0, but we’re selling equipment to the miners as well,” he said.
Steinmeyer described Orbital ATK’s air-launched Pegasus as the world’s first commercially developed space launch vehicle and said that its launch platform has been “reused successfully over 40 times.” Upcoming missions for Pegasus, he noted, include the
Cygnus mission for Earth Observation for NASA, as well
NASA’s ICON mission next year.
However, Orbital ATK’s primary focus at the moment, according to Steinmeyer, is the
Antares return to flight mission to resume cargo resupply services to the international space station.
Steinmeyer also said that Orbital ATK is considering other partnerships.
“We’ve been able to approach NASA and actually reduce the price of the Pegasus launch vehicle on the [NASA launch] program, so that’s a direct result of the synergies we’ve been able to effect through the merged corporation,” he said.
According to Lars Hoffman, senior director for government sales at
SpaceX, the company’s goal is to revolutionize space technology by “building capacity and capability to transport people and material to other planets.” He said Mars is the company’s near-term focus.
Discussing the importance of reusability to SpaceX, Hoffman said that his boss and company founder, Elon Musk, is “adamant” about it.
“This is his philosophy,” Hoffman said. “This is really what he considers the key breakthrough to being able to build that transportation system to other planets, to make it affordable.”
Hoffman noted that a primary benefit of reusability is improved reliability, explaining that the ability to examine recovered hardware allows engineers to learn more than from simply testing on the ground.
He also said reusability provides greater flexibility.
“If you’re able to recover boosters, like we are, you’re able to refurbish those and reuse those boosters at the launch site,” Hoffman said. “That’s the plan, that’s what we’re working on right now, and that’s what we’re going to demonstrate here very soon.”
Participants in the panel discussion, "Launch 2020," on Tuesday, 13 September, at AIAA SPACE 2016, taking place 13–16 September 2016, in Long Beach, CA.
Hoffman spoke of a future world in which the commercial space launch industry operates much like a busy airport.
“Like a 737, [a rocket] lands, it’s inspected, it’s serviced, it’s loaded, and it’s sent on its way on another mission,” he said, adding that this coming revolution will dramatically lower the cost of launch.
John Reed, senior technical fellow with
United Launch Alliance, raised some of the challenges — and possible limitations — of reusability in the space launch market.
“The demand just really hasn’t changed a lot,” he said. “What we really need to do is drive demand in the market and figure out what we can do in space in order to stimulate this market.”
He cautioned that due to an existing “low-rate market,” where a company like ULA executes maybe 10 to 14 launches a year, there are certain implications that exist for “how we can do reuse.”
He explained that reusability impacts the supply chain, and due to so few launches per year, it’s a “fairly small purchase set of components” and that when “you try to reuse things,” it will inevitably have an impact on the cost of the systems being procured.
ULA is focused on leveraging technologies that both benefit its approach for reuse and also provide a shared application in space with other NASA missions, Reed said, in order to get a broader use of the infrastructure and a broader demand for the components that will need to be procured.
Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive director for the
Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, also cautioned about the existing challenges and limitations of reusability. She noted that reusability is easier to manage when crews are not involved but that as soon as you start putting people on them, the equation changes.
She also touched on some of the advantages expendable launch vehicles inevitably offer over reusables, noting that reusables carry less payload, require extra hardware and require more fuel for the return trip.
Dittmar added that a one-size-fits-all solution does not exist and that ultimately, mission profiles and objectives should guide design considerations, how payloads are built and packaged, how a launch vehicle is developed and whether it’s reusable or not.
She explained that it’s not as simple as saying reusability is always the best option.
“Well, sometimes, OK, but not always,” she said.
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