Virgin Orbit 747
Virgin Orbit expects to perform the first launch of its LaunchOne small rocket this summer. The company acknowledges there's a glut of companies in that part of the overall launch market. Credit: Virgin Orbit

PASADENA, Calif. — The launch industry is facing a shakeout in the coming years that could result in the failure of the vast majority of companies developing new vehicles, industry executives warned at a conference.

Panelists in opening sessions of the Space Tech Expo conference here May 22 said they expect most of the current launch ventures to go out of business for one reason or another, primarily due to insufficient demand.

“There are way too many” companies in the launch market, said Greg Jones, senior vice president of business development and strategy for Aerojet Rocketdyne. “Eighty or ninety percent won’t make it to the end. Maybe there’s room for a dozen launch vehicles worldwide or something on that level.”

That surge of development is concentrated at the small end of the vehicle spectrum, with dozens of vehicles in various stages of design or testing. “It reflects the excitement going on in the small satellite market,” said Stephen Eisele, Vice President of Virgin Orbit, which is developing the LauncherOne small launch vehicle.

That interest, he argued, is stimulated by growing demand for small satellites, such as for large constellations of spacecraft in low Earth orbit, as well as an interest in dedicated launch services versus secondary payload accommodations on larger vehicles. He added that small launch vehicles are less expensive to develop, and thus in the reach of more companies.

However, Eisele acknowledged that demand is insufficient for all the vehicles under development. “It’s not going to be sustainable for that many. There’s going to be some consolidation,” he said. “There is definitely room for more than one, maybe three to four small launchers.”

Eisele said Virgin Orbit expects to carry out its first LauncherOne mission in mid-summer, after a captive carry test of its air-launched rocket on a modified Boeing 747 aircraft in about a month. He said the company should be able to ramp up operations quickly after that to gain a foothold in the market.

Other companies are looking for ways to differentiate their vehicles in a crowded market. “I think it’s typical that, in the beginning, everybody’s optimistic,” said Nadir Bagaveyev, chief executive and chief designer of Bagaveyev Corporation, in a later panel. His company is working on a small launch vehicle and hopes to perform its first orbital flight in late 2019.

Bagaveyev said he’s working to set his company apart through the use of advanced technologies, like additive manufacturing, that make his vehicles less complex and less expensive to develop. “That will be able to help us innovate out of this mire.”

The concerns about overcapacity extend to larger launch vehicles as well. “I think we have a glut, too,” said Kent Lietzau, vice president of strategy and business development at United Launch Alliance.

“I think we’re wise to differentiate: here’s my market niche, here’s the angle I’m going after,” he said. In the case of ULA, that means emphasizing schedule assurance and reliability. “It’s kind of a natural business evolution that’s occurring.”

Among those larger launch vehicles, Orbital ATK is working on OmegA, a vehicle it is developing for EELV missions for the U.S. Air Force. However, an executive said the company would reevaluate those plans if it does not win a Launch Services Agreement (LSA) award from the Air Force later this year.

“If we don’t win the LSA phase, then we would not proceed with the vehicle as defined here. It will be some different class of vehicle, because achieving the full range of EELV mission requirements is a very expensive undertaking,” said Michael Laidley, vice president for the OmegA program at Orbital ATK. “From our perspective, it’s going to look different if we don’t win the next phase.”

Some, though, took a more optimistic perspective, seeing the potential for increased launch demand should companies achieve their planned reductions in launch costs.

“We really do see a future where there are multiple sustained launch providers,” said Ariane Cornell, New Glenn commercial sales director in the Americas for Blue Origin. “But that is contingent upon really dramatically reducing the cost of access to space, increasing demand for launch services.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...