Friday, March 10, 2023

Weekly Small Space News Story Roundup 3

Arianespace chief plans on rapid Ariane 6 ramp-up

Arianespace had a rough time in 2022. Among the issues they dealt with were the sudden loss of cooperation with Russia for launches via the Soyuz vehicle, the December Vega C launch failure when the second stage failed, dooming the mission, and further delays in readying the Ariane 6 rocket for launch. In a paywalled op-ed published in the French publication Les Echos, Arianespace President Stéphane Israël defended the European launch company saying it would be wrong to criticize them

That's a lot to ask ... Rather, he argues that better times are coming for the European launch industry, noting in particular that the Ariane 6 vehicle had won a "historic" contract for 18 of Amazon's Project Kuiper satellite launches. To meet this demand, he says, Arianespace plans to be launching a dozen Ariane 6 rockets a year by 2025. This ramp-up is "essential" Israël said. It may indeed be essential, but launching an Ariane 6 rocket a month in 2025, with the booster unlikely to make its debut before early 2024, seems almost like magical thinking.

What's all this NSSL Phase 3 stuff, anyway?

A gold rush.  

The US military recently released a rather mundane-sounding document titled "National Security Space Launch Phase 3 DRAFT Request for Proposals #1." That may be a mouthful of jargon, but it's still a rather consequential document. Effectively, its release is the starting gun for the next round of launch contracts for US spy satellites, secure communications satellites, and more.

The US military issues these requests for proposals from time to time.  Proposals for launch contracts worth billions of dollars—substantially more than $10 billion—as the military seeks to secure launch deals for the late 2020s and early 2030s.  

The bottom line could be that they're finally getting serious about commercial space.  

In 2012, after SpaceX had already successfully flown the Falcon 9 four times, the military nonetheless awarded a block-buy contract exclusively to United Launch Alliance. Commercial launch startup be damned, the Department of Defense stuck with its monopoly.

As the Falcon 9 continued to fly, with prices substantially undercutting United Launch Alliance, this decision came to look pretty silly. So a few years later, the program was modified to allow SpaceX to win a few of these military contracts.

 Blue Origin and Northrup Grumman were told "thanks for playing; try again later." 

The Phase 3 contract is subdivided into subcategories such as Lanes 1, 2 and more.  Lane 1 is for smaller, less critical payloads.

... about 30 "Lane 1" missions will be awarded during a five-year period from fiscal year 2025 to 2029. These satellites will mostly fly into low-Earth orbit, and the missions are more "risk tolerant," meaning that if the rocket blows up and the satellite is lost, it will not have a hugely adverse effect on the military's operations.

The goal is to provide an opportunity for companies developing new medium-lift rockets to enter the competition. This includes Rocket Lab (with its Neutron rocket), Relativity Space (with its Terran R vehicle), and ABL Space (which has not named or announced a vehicle), Pentecost said. Companies with larger launch vehicles, like United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, and Blue Origin, are also eligible to compete in Lane 1. There likely will be many potential providers. Pentecost said 27 companies signed up for an "industry day" on February 28 to discuss this opportunity.

Lane 2 is the more traditional procurement strategy. About 40 missions will be awarded during a five-year period beginning in 2025. These are payloads that require the greatest capabilities from launch providers: the ability to deal with difficult orbits, secure rooms for pre-launch processing, and heavier lift capabilities.  Space Systems Command will select only two companies for this lane, which will split the mission awards in a 60-40 ratio; the way the current split between ULA (60) and SpaceX is currently built.  

There are lots of interesting side aspects to this and anyone interested should read the whole thing.  For one, the launch systems don't have to actually have been certified to any required "reference orbits" or not even actually flying.  They simply need to have agreed to complete the certification processes before they're eligible to fly those national security payloads.  That leaves room for companies like Blue Origin.  Space Systems Command expects to issue a "final" request for proposals in the third quarter of 2023 and then announce its two "Lane 2" awardees during the summer of 2024. It's entirely possible, even likely, that New Glenn will not have flown yet when this decision is made.

Perhaps the most interesting little bit is a report that Boeing will propose to use the Space Launch System - SLS.  

No, wait, they're serious ... "We believe the proven SLS capabilities can be an asset for the ... [NSSL] Phase 3 contract," the company told Klotz. While I applaud Boeing's ambition, it is difficult to see the SLS rocket being seriously considered in an open competition. Its price (probably above $2 billion) will easily be five times, or even 10 times that of the rockets it is competing against, and, with a low flight rate, it is unlikely to answer the military's priorities for schedule and reliability.

A Falcon Heavy rocket launches the USSF-67 mission for the US Space Force this past January (2023).  SpaceX photo.


  1. Yeah, Arianespace, right. We'll see how they weather issues dealing with the EU and whatever is happening in Eastern Europe.

    As to Blue Origins? Yeah, I'll believe it when I see it. Until the BE4s are proven in flight more than once, BO is just full of handwavium right up there with warp drive. Doable but...

    And Boeing? Unless Space Command has something that only SLS can lift, then... Oh, sorry, Starship can loft any weight that SLS can hope to, and Starship is probably (once it flies successfully and repeatedly) the safer bet (depending on how orbital test flights do, that is.)

  2. I'm sure the lobbying is extremely heavy regarding Boeing (ULA) and all the other stalwarts of the Old Space Guard - even though SpaceX has (in reality) got a lock on medium- and large-scale launches. MOST especially price-wise.
    But, hey, don't let logic get in the way of Gubmint Pork. Right? Right??

    1. But, hey, don't let logic get in the way of Gubmint Pork. Right? Right??

      All that anyone needs to know about that is there have been people in congress trying to mandate the government do nothing except "cost plus" contracts. Cost plus makes sense when they're developing something so different from anything ever built that nobody really knows the way to do it and it's very experimental. Ironically, that might include Starship since it will be the first of its kind.

      It absolutely shouldn't apply to launching on an existing, proven vehicle.

    2. Cost Plus worked so well with Boeings Starliner, right?

    3. It worked real well - for Boeing. Especially when you consider they use old technology and USED parts!