PROF KEITH HAYWARD, FRAeS looks at the wider implications to the space industry of the recent accident in which a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was destroyed while being fuelled prior to a pre-launch engine test firing.
One of SpaceX’s successful launches - lift-off for the Thales Alenia Space TurkumenAlem52E/MonacoSat communications satellite aboard a Falcon 9 launcher on 27 April 2015. (SpaceX)
The SpaceX Falcon 9 pad explosion may yet be a setback, not just to Elon Musk’s ambitions but could pose potential problems for the US military and security space programmes. Explosive failures are not uncommon in developing racket launchers, and SpaceX has already had its ration of issues. But these had been overcome and SpaceX had not only fulfilled several commercial and International Space Station supply missions, but also successfully demonstrated reusability with six first stage recoveries.
This time it looks as though something went wrong while fuelling up the vehicle for a pre-launch test, and SpaceX may get a pass unless something systemic emerges from the investigation. However, as this type of test is now only part of Falcon preparations, questions may be asked about future procedures.
The entrepreneurial challenge
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launcher is taller than the NASA Space Shuttle (SpaceX)
Whatever the cause, the rush to establish the ‘entrepreneurial’ approach to the American space business does challenge the traditional way of doing things. This is not to imply that SpaceX has cut any corners, but its very modus operandi is to circumvent the bureaucracy of the US space programme run by NASA or overseen by the Department of Defense. The buccaneering alternative initiated by Messrs Musk, Bezos, Bigelow and Branson has brought a raft of new ideas and energy to the space industry. This stems directly from the fact that all four made, or make their money from running dynamic commercial businesses. Initially dismissed as a rich boys’ fantasy, the quartet and especially Musk and Bezos, has shaken up a global industry with the promise of cheap launches for a range of satellites, commercial and military.
The posted launch price of under $100m for a ‘Washington DC’ mission, as against the +$150m demanded by International Launchers (ILA) – the Boeing-Lockheed Martin ‘Last man standing’ coalition of the old American rocket makers) will surely keep SpaceX very much in the race to provide a next generation of heavy lift launchers. SpaceX’s commercial prices are in the $60-70m range, giving Arianespace a run for its money too.
The Cape Canaveral accident may delay the introduction of the Falcon Heavy, which will challenge the ILA Delta IV monopoly of American large payload missions (mainly for the US military and intelligence community) but, with a Delta costing some $400m a launch, SpaceX promises to knock a chunk off this fee as well. ILA, on the other hand, has launched 110 missions since 2006 without a single failure. That kind of reliability may still provide an edge in the blacker US satellite mission.
Concept art of SpaceX Crew Dragon docking with the International Space Station. (SpaceX).
Further out, SpaceX is in pole position to deliver the next generation of US launch vehicles, or at least to share contracts with Boeing, Lockheed, and Bezo’s’ Blue Origin company. Manned missions are also in the frame once the newcomers can prove their reliability.
Chasing military shadows?
Artist’s concept of USAF Milsat military satellite in orbit. (USAF)
From a wider perspective, some elements of the US military space community are getting twitchy about the perceived vulnerability of its space-based assets. With some 90% of the total US space budget, this remains the domestic industry’s golden goose. Its size also dwarfs any competing power. But this matters little when US dependence on unopposed access to space seems to be threatened.
The fear stems from the Chinese efforts to deploy anti-satellite systems and to use its much vaunted electronic and cyber warfare capabilities to undermine confidence in the security of US military space programmes. President Obama has committed $5.5bn to attack these perceived deficiencies. This embraces more investment in space situational awareness (SSA) and other active technologies. However, filling the gaps, increasing the credibility of US forces with increased assurance that the US military will not suffer a dangerous degradation of service during combat will also depend on more flexible and rapid responses to problems and active denial of access.
There is an element of wolf crying here: as already noted the US military space programme is already more extensive than that of any potential adversary – sub set of America’s power projection dominance over any other state. The operative word is perceived threat or weakness. This is a strain in US military-technological thinking that harks back to the Sputnik and missile gap responses of the late 1950s and early 1960s. This helped to trigger another round of strategic arms racing. The current set of anxieties will not (hopefully) have the same destabilising consequences, but it could edge the world closer to an even more militarised space environment.
Such thinking, however, brings us back to the ‘entrepreneurial’ approach that not only promises cheaper launches but also a more agile service delivery. This business model will underpin the proposed commercial satellite constellations under current consideration, but also give the US military options rapidly to replace or strengthen its own equipment. One positive thought is that with the availability of speedy replenishment or a quick response to immediate threats might reduce the temptation to anticipate threats by throwing more potentially provocative systems into orbit.
This is part of a more generalised set of ideas stemming from the Pentagon’s wooing of the ‘Silicon Valley’ family of technological innovators. For years critics of US procurement have pointed to the decades needed to bring new weapons into service. When they arrive, their sub systems are already obsolete by commercial standards. In areas like robotics, cyber networks and security, the DoD is making an effort to embrace the agility and pure off-the-wall innovation of private sector innovators. The paradox is that much of the fundamentals of Silicon Valley technology originated in defence programmes. But the new effort to rebuild the relationship will undoubtedly bear fruit for both sides
Implications for Europe
The 72nd consecutive successful launch of an Ariane 5 on 18 June. (Arianespace)
Whatever the future may deliver, current US space spending and the vitality and energy provided by the space entrepreneurs inevitably draws attention to deficiencies and limitations closer to home. Thankfully, the Ariane team is beginning to tackle some of the limitations of past rocket development and manufacturing. Commercial satellites and scientific missions are as strong as ever. But looking across the wider spectrum of European space capabilities, especially in the security dimension, the continent is in danger of slipping further behind and becoming even more dependent on access to US services. It would do European defence establishments little harm to look also at developing closer relations with its technological entrepreneurs.