This op-ed originally appeared in SpaceNews.
Launch service providers and integrators exist at the intersection of two highly specialized fields: launch vehicle development and satellite development. These fields overlap, but generally contain different specialties, with both groups speaking fundamentally different languages. For example, launch vehicle providers work on short time scales, while satellite developers consider operations over years. Spacecraft need to be light, and just strong enough to handle launch loads, whereas launch vehicles (LVs) are trying to make it to space reliably under extremely harsh operating conditions and widely varying flight regimes.
At Spaceflight, we often define the role of launch service providers as the “technical translators” in the area between satellites and LVs, using their expertise and experience to improve mission assurance and spacecraft-launch vehicle interactions. This makes launch service providers uniquely qualified to assess the viability of the many new LVs actively working to enter the market.
Assessing new entrants
Launch service providers have a rare view of the marketplace, working with many launch vehicle providers and launching satellites on a broad spectrum of vehicles, from existing players like the Falcon 9, Electron and PSLV, to new vehicle entrants such as Alpha, Terran 1, LauncherOne and Astra. This offers visibility into the latest vehicle developments and provides a unique ability to assess new entrants and give customers advice on how to choose the best launch solution from among the many options.
Launch service providers are often asked to assist in the creation of new payload users guides (PUGs) for new vehicle entrants. They need to draw on their historical knowledge of satellite customer requirements and requests to help shape how new launch vehicle providers design their systems with the end user’s needs in mind. To do this, they rely on a huge well of technical and programmatic experience across nearly all aspects of LV design, development, and operations. To do their job, they must stay current with the many PUGs and other technical documentation that launch vehicle providers distribute.
Launch environments are a great example of this. New launch vehicle developers initially start by setting vibration, shock, and other key requirements overly conservative – using standards set by NASA or other organizations as an initial baseline. This is done because much of the satellite’s launch environment is determined through integrated system testing such as booster or upper stage hot fires on the ground, or sensor data collected during early launches. Because this data isn’t available early in the program, it can be extremely challenging for new customers to decide which LV to fly on. Many satellites cannot survive vibration testing that is overly conservative, so it is beneficial to work with new LVs to reduce levels as early as possible or provide interface solutions (like vibration isolators) enabling new flyers to move forward with greater confidence.
Performance margin and technical risk
A new vehicle’s payload capabilities, vehicle architecture and launch locations are some of the critical components to consider when determining its performance margin and technical risks. As each new vehicle moves from initial design through test to first launch, performance margins change and managing contracts and expectations are key.
One fundamental aspect of space launch is that the amount of energy required to bring a satellite payload to low Earth orbit is fixed — there are opportunities to fine-tune trajectories, but no matter what is done, you can’t defy physics. This means that any changes in LV mass, rocket engine efficiency, launch site location, or control system inefficiencies can cause a large change in net performance. Space launch service providers that carefully track these program and technical factors throughout each new launch vehicle development can provide higher confidence to customers and protect launch vehicle entrants from greater manifest churn.
There is value in considering how technically aggressive a new LV is. Each new launch vehicle will trade advanced developments versus heritage technology and designs. Since space launch is never easy, a company that chooses to take on too many concurrent advanced developments is much more likely to miss their published launch date – yet these developments often result in future benefit, whether through increased payload to orbit, or in reduced costs. It is important for companies to balance program risk with providing the necessary performance to meet customers’ needs. This can be done by using flight-proven technology in a new and novel way, by focusing development on specific areas, while maintaining a strong focus on flight heritage, especially when linked with commoditized components and subsystems.
Development team expertise
As launch vehicle developments progress, it is helpful for launch service providers to assess the available analysis and test results, packaging options, and launch integration plans and provide feedback based on their understanding and experience of the smallsat industry. That information can also be fed forward to customers to ensure their requirements are fully met.
A launch vehicle provider’s technical competency should be evaluated to determine whether its team members are experienced and capable or a new team that has a steeper learning curve ahead of it. With so many startups in the market, there can be a lack of experience or a lack of technical diversity. These weaknesses are often supplemented with outside support, and it is important to identify where shortcomings might exist. Institutional knowledge is very powerful. It’s preferable to work with those who have the “known unknowns” worked out, and only have to deal with the “unknown unknowns” which are the crux of a reliable LV.
Other questions to consider have to do with ground systems and launch sites. A new launch vehicle provider can’t just transport its rocket to Vandenberg AFB and say they want to launch it. How are they handling integrated testing? Payload processing? When will launch licenses be ready? What kind of launch availability has been planned in the LV design? Often launch site development will take longer than the vehicle development itself, so digging into the ground architecture is very important.
Business model viability
Beyond the technical, it is also important to consider the viability of the launch vehicle provider model. Most launch vehicle developments will cost anywhere between $300 million and $700 million, so investment, and especially committed investors, is a must. If a company has only raised a small amount of money (say enough to cover a component development, or initial trades), there are valid concerns they won’t be in business long enough to get to the finish line. Even if the first launch of a new rocket is 100% successful, the business model must stand on its own and have a justifiable path to profit. Launch is very expensive, and usually low margin – without a strong business model for production at reasonable launch rates, it is prudent to be somewhat skeptical of future availability and consider carefully whether to sign a launch agreement until there is confidence in the team, the vehicle, and the business health.
Customers are looking for reliable, flexible, and valuable launch services. Their entire business plans are linked to getting to orbit on-time and on-budget. It is worth spending a great deal of time evaluating new launch vehicle options to determine which will provide the best launch solutions possible.
Philip Bracken is vice president of engineering at Spaceflight Inc, where he oversees a diverse team of engineers and technicians who support all of the U.S.-based company’s rideshare and dedicated rideshare missions.