The State and Fate of Small RLVs:
A Report on the Space Access '99 Conference

by Jeff Foust

The case for reusable launch vehicles (RLVs) has seemed straightforward. RLVs can launch their payload, return to Earth, and be ready to launch another in a week or less. Reusability and rapid turnaround times reduce costs, making it far less expensive to place satellites into orbit.

The picture clouds a bit, though, when examined in more detail. The technical challenges -- and costs -- of developing RLVs has limited most planned designs to relatively small payloads, such as low-Earth orbit (LEO) comsats like Iridium and Teledesic. While the market for these appears large, it is also uncertain, and that uncertainty is making it difficult for RLV companies to attract investors. Meanwhile, the larger aerospace companies are focusing on the existing, growing market for heavy geosynchronous orbit payloads, with expendables now and RLVs like VentureStar in the future.

These issues were a primary focus of Space Access '99, an annual conference held last month in Phoenix focuses on new developments that promise to reduce the cost of access to space. By the end of the conference it was clear that there was no shortage of technical solutions to make space access less expensive, but a dire shortage of money to make it happen.

The Uncertain Market

Market planning by RLVs developers has, in general, focused on the growing market for LEO comsats. LEO comsat constellations could account for several hundred payloads in the next decade, according to an analysis by the consulting company The Teal Group earlier this year, as projects like Teledesic and SkyBridge get off the drawing board and into orbit.

Yet, there is considerable uncertainty in the market. Iridium, which entered commercial service late last year, has run into serious financial problems as it has been unable to attract anywhere near as many customers as it planned. The recent departure of its CEO and chief financial officer has led to concerns that the company may not be able to make it, as well as overall speculation about how large of a market there really is for these services. These concerns are likely the primary reason why potential RLV investors are staying on the sidelines for the time being.

The constellations themselves are also changing, noted Eric Laursen of International Launch Services, a Lockheed Martin/Russian joint venture that markets Atlas and Proton boosters. The number of satellites in Teledesic's project has shrunk from around 1,000 to 288, with each satellite growing heavier and flying in higher orbits -- two factors that work against small RLVs.

This may prove critical, according to a market analysis presented at the conference by Dave Salt. Since Teledesic's satellites account for about three-quarters of the "baseline" payloads over the next several years, any successful RLV may be able to launch at least one Teledesic satellite to be successful. He also noted that RLVs need to enter service by 2001 to be able to capture a share of the projected surge in launcher demand that will last through 2003, before it declines as current projected projects are placed in orbit.

In fact, the major aerospace companies are unconvinced there is a market for any kind of launch vehicle for small payloads. ILS's Laursen noted that the largest area of growth is in GEO comsats weighing over 5,500 kg (12,100 lbs.). This is because customers want as many transponders in orbit as they can get to lease or sell to broadcasters, and the most efficient way to do that is with large payloads.

Laursen said that Lockheed Martin has struggled to sell flights on its Athena series of small launch vehicles. He also noted the potential new competition from Russia, where the Dnepr-1 rocket, a converted ICBM, can place up to 3,200 kg into LEO at low cost, with 150 of the rockets available.

Similarly, Boeing has no vehicle in use or planned for small payloads. Boeing's Dana Andrews said the company is designing an RLV. Although details on their design had not yet been publicly released, it would likely be a two-stage design capable of lifting heavier payloads into orbit, rather than a direct competitor for smaller RLVs already in the works.

RLV Company Updates

With an uncertain launch market that's being dismissed by the larger aerospace companies, it would appear that the group of start-up RLV companies would face a steep uphill path to success. And while that may be true, the companies speaking at Space Access '99 showed every sign of optimism that their vehicles will be built and be a success.

Gary Hudson, CEO of Rotary Rocket, downplayed concerns about the small LEO launch market. The company's business plan is not based on launching Teledesic satellites, he said. He believes that other markets besides satellite delivery are viable, including servicing of satellites, transfer of International Space Station crews, and eventually space tourism, although that market may be 10-15 years down the line.

Hudson said the company plans to make the first flight of the Atmospheric Test Vehicle (ATV), which was rolled out in a March 1 ceremony, in the next few weeks. The company had just completed tests on the rotors that will be used for the flights, which will take place from Rotary's test facility at Mojave Airport, California.

Rotary has raised about $30 million of the $150 million it needs to complete its orbital vehicle. Hudson downplayed reports that Virgin's Richard Branson was investing in Rotary, calling published reports "grossly wrong" but declining to elaborate.

Mitchell Burnside Clapp of Pioneer Rocketplane outlined the status of his company's Pathfinder RLV. The Pathfinder uses off-the-shelf technologies where possible, he said, ranging from an RD-120 engine to brakes and tires used in the SR-71. "Pioneer Rocketplane is all about risk reduction," he said.

Clapp believes the vehicle will be able to put up to 2,250 kg (5,000 lbs.) in LEO for $5-10 million a flight. He said the total cost of the Pathfinder will be less than $300 million, a sum the company is still raising. Once full funding is found, he said, it will take 35 months to go to first flight.

Steve Wurst provided a look at the plans of Space Access LLC, an RLV start-up that has shied away from the publicity other RLV makers have sought. Their SA-1 project would be a fully-reusable two-stage system. A first stage would take off from a runway and fly most of the way into orbit using an ejector ramjet and engine. It would then deploy a second stage that would use a rocket engine to go the rest of the way into orbit, deliver the payload, and return.

The SA-1 would be capable of launching LEO and some GEO satellites. Wurst said a redesigned second stage would later be able to transfer crews and supplies to the International Space Station. Wurst said the company is doing wind tunnel tests on the SA-1 design, and is looking to base their vehicle at the former Homestead Air Force Base south of Miami, Florida.

The uncertain market and lack of investors is also not deterring companies, both new and established, from entering the marketplace. Orbital Science Corporation's Tim Lewis described his company's concept for a "Space Taxi", outlined in Orbital's space architecture study submitted to NASA. The Space Taxi would be a reusable vehicle launched atop an expendable vehicle like the Delta 4 Heavy, Atlas 5, or Ariane 5, capable of carrying 7 people into orbit.

Universal Space Lines is also designing its own RLV, Space Clipper, according to Jess Sponable. The Space Clipper Experimental (SC-X) would be a vertical take-off and landing vehicle designed to test RLV technologies for future systems, he said. It would eventually become the second stage of a two-stage system, perhaps with USL's Intrepid expendable booster also in development. Sponable said the SC-X would make test flights from White Sands as early as 2003, funding permitting.

Bob Conger of Microcosm outlined his company's Scorpius series of launch vehicles, starting with the SR-S suborbital rocket, which flew for the first time in January. The SR-S is the first in a series of vehicles that will eventually build up to the Sprite "mini-lift" vehicle and the Exodus medium-lift, capable of placing up to 6,800 kg (15,000 lbs.) into LEO for $10 million. While Scorpius' vehicles are expendable, Conger said the company is also looking at reusables.

The potentially-lucrative sounding rocket market is the target of TGV-Rockets, according to Pat Bahn. TGV is developing the Modular Incremental Compact High Energy Low-cost Launch Experiment (MICHELLE), a reusable suborbital launch vehicle that is designed to provide more microgravity time for payloads under less stressful conditions than current sounding rockets. The vehicle would fly a crew of three and 1000 kg (2,200 lbs.) of payload to altitudes of 100 km (62 mi.) and speeds of Mach 3.

Bahn noted that the market for sounding rockets currently is small -- about $100 million a year -- but other markets, from military flights to ISS experimental qualification flights, combined with the efficiencies gained by using an RLV with lower operating costs, would result in a much larger market. "Small markets add up," Bahn noted. The company needs about $50 million to build the vehicle, Bahn said.

The Role of Government

The role government can and should play to promote cheap access to space was also discussed at the conference. Three such roles were discussed: developing X-vehicles to test new concepts, regulations to make RLV flights possible, and legislation to financially support RLV development.

Carl Meade of Lockheed Martin discussed the status of the X-33. He acknowledged that the project has had problems with the X-33's engine and hydrogen fuel tank that have pushed back the date of the first flight until mid-2000. However, such problems should be expected from X-vehicles, pointing to a chart which color-coded technologies used in the vehicle green, yellow, or red based on how ready for flight those technologies are. "All X-vehicles are yellow," Meade said.

The Air Force and NASA will be cooperating on development of technologies for a "space maneuver vehicle" (SMV), a small reusable spacecraft that would be the upper stage of a launch vehicle capable of going into orbit. The Air Force has already been working on the X-40, a prototype of which made a successful drop test in August from Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. More X-40 drop tests are planned this fall from B-52s, according to the Air Force's Terry Phillips.

The Air Force will also get involved with the X-37, a similar vehicle that is one of the first of NASA's Future-X projects. NASA and Boeing are working on a cooperative cost-sharing agreement to develop the X-37. Robert Armstrong of NASA's Marshall Space Flight center said NASA will conduct atmospheric flight tests of the X-37 before a shuttle flight as early as November 2001 where an X-37 is carried into orbit and deployed so it can return to Earth.

The Air Force would contribute funding to the X-37 to conduct tests that would make the X-37, already similar to the Air Force's proposed SMV, more like it. This would include funding to test solar arrays, attitude control systems, and sensors. Armstrong said, though, that potential applications are not driving the design of the X-37; rather, the vehicle is testing technologies that might be used in future reusable launch vehicles.

However, tests of technology are not the only purposes X-vehicles need to serve, USL's Sponable said. Work also needs to be done to test the operational aspects of vehicles to prove, particularly to potential investors, that they can provide routine, low-cost access. A House authorization bill for NASA currently in the works includes $160 million over three years for such "X-ops" tests, although Sponable said that the first generation of RLVs will "live or die" before those tests can be carried out.

Regulation of future RLV launches is also an issue, something that was addressed by Manuel Vega of the FAA. The FAA released days before the conference proposed regulations for licensing the reentry of RLVs. The public comment period on those regulations has begun, and Vega encourages the industry to provide feedback on the regulations before the comment period ends July 21.

Government loan guarantees, as proposed in legislation by Senator John Breaux, also were discussed. The guarantees are almost universally opposed by launch vehicle companies outside of Lockheed Martin. One exception, though, is Space Access LLC. Steve Wurst noted that 20 percent of the loan guarantees would be set aside for small businesses, which could be beneficial for companies like his.

Tim Pleasant, a lawyer and professor at the University of Phoenix, pointed out a major downside to companies that accept loan guarantees. If the company defaults, the government can step in and claim all the assets of the company, including the RLVs themselves, and then resell or operate them itself. The bill, he concluded, is "nobly intended but poorly carried out."

It may be a moot point in the end, though, since the bill is unlikely to leave the Senate's commerce committee. Tim Kyger and Henry Vanderbilt noted that the chairman of the committee, John McCain, is running for President and is paying less time to committee affairs. Since no one else on the committee appears to care about the bill, it is unlikely to be considered.

Despite the problems and uncertainty in the market, conference attendees are still very optimistic about the future, in part because of the tremendous potential for new markets if low-cost space access can be realized, including those not yet even conceivable. Trying to explain that future in space, noted Max Hunter, would be like "trying to explain Hollywood to Queen Isabella."