Foust Forward | Riding a big wave of small rockets

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“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Jan. 15, 2018 issue.

On Jan. 11, Rocket Lab announced it plans to carry out another launch attempt for its Electron vehicle in a nine-day window that opens Jan. 19. The company had tried in December to launch the small rocket for the first time, after a partially successful first launch in May, but was stymied by poor weather and technical glitches. If successful, though, Rocket Lab says they’ll be ready to begin commercial missions immediately thereafter.

That development is just one sign of the growing wave of small launch vehicles that has been building over the last few years. Other companies, like Vector and Virgin Orbit, are planning inaugural launches of their vehicles later this year, with more vehicles under development. Will that wave of activity continue to swell this year, or will it break and crash?

What is remarkable is the amount of activity going into a market whose demand remains so uncertain. A few years ago, Carlos Niederstrasser and Warren Frick of Orbital ATK started keeping track of the small launchers in service or in development. They represented the results at the annual Conference on Small Satellites at Utah State University, and the interest was so strong they have continued to update what has become a growing list.

Their list focuses on vehicles capable of placing no more than 1,000 kilograms into orbit. By that metric, five vehicles qualify as operational, having successfully performed at least one launch: their company’s own Pegasus and Minotaur 1, and the Chinese Kaitouzhe-2, Kuaizhou-1A and Long March 11 rockets.

However, the list now includes 35 vehicles actively under development, at least based on publicly available information, compared to just 20 in 2015. “There was a period of time last year where I was finding a new vehicle almost every week,” Niederstrasser said during a panel discussion about small launch vehicles at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington Jan. 7.

Just over half of those vehicles are American, with Chinese, British and Spanish projects accounting for most of the rest. In addition, Niederstrasser said he maintains a “watch list” of 30 more small launch vehicle projects about which there isn’t yet enough information to determine how serious they are.

Clearly, not all of these 65 small launchers will actually make it to a launch pad, let alone perform a successful flight. But even if only a small fraction does so, those rockets enter a smallsat market where the numbers of satellites are growing, but so are alternative launch options, like launching from the International Space Station or as secondary payloads. Many smallsat developers may not be able to afford the premium cost of a dedicated launch on one of these rockets.

So why gamble on a small launch vehicle? Niederstrasser attributes the interest at least in part to “launch fever” created by SpaceX’s success. New launch ventures don’t want to compete head-to-head with SpaceX but think there’s a niche in the smallsat market they can capture, despite the fact that SpaceX and other established launch service providers have given up on small launchers of their own.

Others on the panel believe companies, and their investors, are going into this with their eyes wide open to the risks. “I think the venture capital community is used to having a high attrition rate,” said Frank Slazer, vice president of space systems for the Aerospace Industries Association, citing their experience with internet and biotech companies. “There will be failures, business as well as technical, but that’s just part of the process.”

So, this year may be key to the future of the small launch vehicle industry. As vehicles start flying — or, at least, attempt to start flying — we will see if crashing rockets and business plans lead to a broader industry wipeout.

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Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.