2014 in review – Part II

This is the second in a series of posts reviewing the year 2014 in spaceflight. Here is a link to Part I.

If you read my blog it’s because you are a lover of space, or you are my mom (hi mom!). So I assume you are not offended by the limited focus of this small slice of the internet. There are of course other things going on in the world besides rockets launching and people flying in space. And even I admit that in many cases those things are more important. For instance, the January 7th terrorist attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo commanded the world’s attention, and rightly so. Such a tragic and visible event is an important moment in the history of our culture – the way we choose to respond says something about how we value our free speech (or not).

The year of 2014 had its share of world events that command more attention than what I write about in this blog. From the threat of ISIS in the middle east, the winter olympics in Sochi, Russia, Ebola virus outbreaks in West Africa, the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and the normalization of US-Cuba relations, it was a busy year (it’s nice to see the Rosetta comet mission on some lists of major world events).

In the same way that my space blog almost completely ignores these events to stay on point, I think the space community at large tends to insulate itself from the outside world. As you might imagine, this can have its downsides. The world is connected, and as much as we want, the fun things we do in space are affected by the rest of the world. Fans of NASA know this as they watch the yo-yo-ing of NASA’s slice of the federal budget over the years. I think 2014 drove this lesson home in a way fans of spaceflight hadn’t been expecting. When Russia invaded Crimea in late February, most space fans weren’t thinking of a connection. We were busy talking about Orbital Sciences’ successful cargo mission to ISS or looking at pictures of SpaceX’s new rocket with legs. It took until April for “reality” to catch up with us.

Part II – Of trampolines and rockets

In early April, the US state department instructed NASA to cut all contact with Russia. This would of course be very concerning – and hard for the space community to tune out – except for that the ISS program was exempted. The ISS of course being the one major ongoing collaboration between our two space programs. The only other example I can think of is that NASA and Roscosmos are both involved in the ESA-led ExoMars mission.

Things really got interesting when Dmitri Rogozin, Russian Deputy Prime Minister, tweeted “After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.” Most Americans wouldn’t have even heard about it – after all, it was tweeted in Cyrillic – except it was too pithy a jab to go unnoticed by American media. In light of the geopolitcal tensions between our nations that had been brewing since February, it was a juicy new angle – Russia might not let American astronauts fly on their Soyuz. It didn’t matter that most Americans hadn’t heard of Rogozin before, if he was saying that he would cut America off from the ISS, it must mean he could. He said it on Twitter, after all.

It seemed that although the US had exempted the ISS program, Russian officials weren’t taking it off the table as a political chess piece. Rogozin’s anger stemmed from the fact that he was individually targeted in the recent sanctions from the US against Russia for their actions in Ukraine. As ABC News reported,

The sanctions freeze any assets under American jurisdiction and prevent American banks from doing business with the named individual, essentially freezing them out of the international banking system. The sanctions also impose a ban on their travel to the United States.

As Deputy Prime Minister, Rogozin is responsible for the entire Russian space program, including the state-owned corporation NPO Energomash, which produces the RD-180 rocket engine used by the American company United Launch Alliance (ULA) to launch US Department of Defense satellites with the Atlas V rocket… see where this is going?

However, nowhere in the sanctions against Rogozin are the companies and agency’s he manages directly called out. Business was going on as usual in the space industry up to this point (the NASA ban on Russian cooperation doesn’t apply to a private company, ULA, buying rocket engines). So, the question still stands, what set off Rogozin to author the trampoline tweet?

Enter Elon Musk and his company SpaceX, whose lawyers filed a lawsuit against the government (specifically, the U.S. Air Force) challenging a 36-rocket “block buy” contract with ULA. The main premise of the suit was that the contract was unfair and lacked competition (meaning of course, that SpaceX did not have a chance to offer a bid). Among other statements at the press conference announcing the suit, Musk is quoted as saying (from SpacePolitics.com):

How is it that we’re sending hundreds of millions of US taxpayers’ money at a time when Russia is in the process of invading Ukraine? It would be hard to imagine that Dmitry Rogozin is not benefiting personally from the dollars that are being sent there. On the surface of it, it appears that there’s a good probability of some kind of sanctions violation.

It seems that Elon Musk stoked the fire here, complaining that ULA’s use of the RD-180, a powerful engine built and sold by NPO Energomash, should not be allowed during this time of geopolitical tension with Russia. Hard to argue with his logic, isn’t it? A few days after the lawsuit was filed and Elon Musk’s press conference, Rogozin posted his famous tweet. The next day, a U.S. Court of Federal Claims issued an injunction saying that ULA could not purchase more RD-180 engines from NPO Energomash for Department of Defense rocket launches, citing the sanctions against Rogozin. Your move Dmitri.

How is it that Elon Musk, with his 12-year-old rocket company, had amassed enough influence to directly affect international relations between two of the biggest world powers? Granted, Musk is a billionaire, but his company is just a rocket company, not a media conglomerate or oil company, the traditional ways to have political influence as a rich guy. Founded in 2002, you wouldn’t think that SpaceX has a huge share of the world launch market. They have only 19 launches under their belt (a few of which were failures); compare that to the 14 successful launches from ULA just in 2014[1]. A big part of SpaceX’s quick rise surely comes from the intriguing personality of Elon Musk, whose vision and ideas capture the imagination of the young generation. His tenacity and commitment to his dreams make it hard to root against him – his three current big ventures (SpaceX, Tesla, and Solar City), if successful, seem to have a clear benefit for society. But this really only explains the cult of SpaceX, not its influence on a political level. To understand why SpaceX is in such a position of influence takes a revelation about the “launch services sector” (or, the rocket business), that I don’t think most people understand; I don’t think I got it until last year either.

Not to get too technical, but the revelation becomes clear with just a little bit of Wikipedia research. Forgive me for making you look at a data table, but I think it tells the story better than a bunch of links. Let’s say you work for Iridium, the satellite phone service company, and you need to buy a rocket to launch a new satellite. If your satellite weighs around 689 kg, then there are only 21 types of rockets in the world that have the power, and a lot of them aren’t for sale. Here’s the list:

Screen shot 2015-01-13 at 10.24.22 PM

Source: Wikipedia article “comparison of orbital launch systems”

The first thing that should jump out at you is that there are only three companies from the United States that can launch medium-sized satellites. Fortunately for the folks at Iridium, their satellites are not military, and the company has utilized American, Russian, and even Chinese rockets to build their global sat-phone network.

In another scenario, you work at the Pentagon and need to find a large rocket to launch a secret spy satellite that weighs between 2,000 and 3,000 kg. Not only do your options get more limited (the Indian GSLV and Orbital Minotaur fall off the list, among others) but you are going to have to use an American company. You won’t be allowed to ship a secret satellite out of the country for launch, obviously.

So now your options are down to the three American companies, all of which have rockets that can launch your big spy satellite. However, if our scenario occurs before 2008, before the first Falcon 9 or Antares flight, there was only one choice – ULA. This is the revelation that 2014 made clear to me. We are 50 years into the “space age” but our grasp on space is hanging on by one company’s monopoly and just a few rocket designs. Until the Falcon 9 and Antares rockets, every major government launch – NASA, Air Force, NOAA, or other military – was on either a ULA rocket (or predecessors), or a Space Shuttle. If space is the frontier, then ULA is Union Pacific at Promontory Point.

So, three choices is pretty good, right? It’s better than we get in our presidential elections here in the US. Well, the problem is that although 2008 is 7 iPhone versions ago, it is very recent in terms of the space industry. As of April 2014, Orbital Sciences was not pursuing military payloads and SpaceX had not yet received certification from the USAF for their Falcon 9 version 1.1 rocket. ULA was the only game in town for the Pentagon, but SpaceX expected that to change soon, as they had successfully launched the CRS-3 mission to the ISS on April 18th, the all-important third flight needed as part of the certification process. The Russian sanctions and push back from Rogozin could not have been happening at a better time for SpaceX, who appeared to be on the verge of becoming a real direct competitor to ULA. SpaceX is an American company, using American-built rocket engines, seen to be on the verge of being able to fully replace America’s areas of dependence on Russia in space. Keep in mind that the Atlas V was also in the pipe to be the launch vehicle for both Boeing and Sierra Nevada if they were to be awarded commercial crew contracts to the ISS. It seemed everything about the US launch sector was wrapped up in this issue. You can bet Musk was going to take advantage of it.

The story didn’t end on April 30th with the injunction against he RD-180 engine. That should be obvious from the way Rogozin responded to Elon Musk’s comments days before. Unfortunately for SpaceX’s political goals, the injunction against the RD-180 engines was lifted by the court about a week later. Just as things were seeming to thaw out, Rogozin hit Twitter again.

Russia is ready to continue deliveries of RD-180 engines to the us only under the guarantee that they won’t be used in the interests of the Pentagon.”

Roscosmos doesn’t plan to continue cooperation with the US on the ISS after 2020

It may be tempting to dismiss Rogozin’s comments as just posturing on Twitter. However, they came after the topics were discussed at more length at a Russian press conference, and led directly to debate in the U.S. Senate and a letter from Congressmen to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden questioning how he plans to deal with these threats. It just goes to show that what’s most important is who says something, not how. And although a National Reconnaissance Office payload launched on an Atlas V on May 19 with no apparent political repercussions, Rogozin’s inflammatory remarks had done their job. An “RD-180 Study Group” was busy investigating the impacts of a potential loss of the RD-180 engine, which recommended allocating funds to develop a new engine. This would turn into a funding debate for the rest of 2015. Ultimately, the 2015 budget passed in December included $220 million to start designing an RD-180 replacement.

In the meantime, over at NASA, things never got much more heated than they were back in April and May. In fact, in August there were reports out of Russia from Roscosmos officials that ISS would likely be operated past 2020. But the “trampoline tweet” was ingrained in the community’s mind. Fortunately, optimism was available later in the year when NASA announced that the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts would go to Boeing for the CST-100 and SpaceX for the Dragon V2. It’s no surprise that SpaceX was included as one of the remaining two options – if NASA had gone with both Boeing and Sierra Nevada then NASA astronauts would be flying atop Atlas V’s starting in 2017, powered by RD-180 engines. Sierra Nevada immediately protested the award, but the protest was recently thrown out in January 2015.

Optimism turned to shock when on October 28th an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket, carrying cargo to the ISS, exploded spectacularly just seconds after liftoff.

First moments of Antares explosion (via Spaceflight Now, image courtesy NASA)

If you remember from our earlier chart, the Antares is the other large US rocket powered by foreign technology. The first stage engine for the Antares is the AJ-26, which is really just the Ukranian NK-33 imported by Aerojet Rocketdyne and refurbished. These imported engines were literally built decades ago, but are an affordable and well-built option. The seemingly excessive use of Russian or Ukranian engines in the US launch sector isn’t for nothing – the Soviets were darn good at building rocket engines, and that expertise has continued to today.

Earlier in the year an AJ-26 blew up on a test stand, but a successful launch of a mission to ISS in July eased everyone’s concerns. Things seemed to be going well for “commercial space” – SpaceX had recently launched their sixth and final Falcon 9 flight of the year – but everyone immediately thought of that old Soviet NK-33 engine the moment they saw the Antares rocket raining down in flames.

The loss of that Antares rocket unfortunately will be the lasting memory of 2014, a year of uncertainty and debate for rocket companies in the US. While Orbital Sciences has announced a path forward, it doesn’t help answer many of the questions raised by events of the past year. Orbital announced in December that it would fly at least its next ISS resupply mission on an Atlas V (yes, that Atlas V) while it works on a plan to replace the aging AJ-26 engines on its own Antares rocket. And finally, in January 2015, Orbital announced it had made a deal with NPO Energomash (yes, that NPO Energomash) to purchase RD-181 engines to power future versions of the Antares, hopefully with a first flight sometime in 2016.

So you can see the tricky spot the industry is left in at the beginning of 2015. Despite Russia not being a political ally of the United States, Russian rocket engines continue to be an important workhorse for American launches – both military and civil – and operations of the ISS cannot continue without Russian cooperation (by design). The good news is that the issues from 2014 are mostly reasons just to be cautious and concerned about the future, and to lay plans accordingly. No scary outcome, like an actual embargo against NASA astronauts flying on a Soyuz, seems at all likely. ISS operations continue as always, and those of us working on the program have not seen any real signs that that won’t continue for the life of the space station. Atlas V rocket launches – powered by Russian RD-180 engines – continue apace with no signs of stopping. In fact, an Atlas V will launch from Florida tomorrow night with the MUOS-3 reconnaissance payload.

In 2015, the Falcon 9 rocket is expected to achieve Air Force certification, and hopefully the ongoing lawsuit that SpaceX started in April of last year will be resolved. Will SpaceX win and break the monopoly held by ULA? Also, the next phase of the ISS commercial cargo contract will be awarded by NASA. Will the award go to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to maintain the status quo? Or will Orbital’s launch vehicle uncertainty open the door for a new player like Sierra Nevada? Either way that contract goes, the only fully domestic option available to NASA seems to be SpaceX. All of these questions involve SpaceX in one way or another and the answers will color the future of the rocket launching business in America.

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[1] – ULA has actually only existed since 2006, but the parent companies – Lockheed Martin and Boeing – have a long-standing relationship with the U.S. Air Force. The current suite of ULA rockets are part of the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Program (EELV) which was started in the mid 1990’s.

January 19, 2015 8:49 pm

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