Tag Archives: EELV

PSLV: A SpaceX/ULA/Ariane Alternative?

A PSLV launch, but not this article’s PSLV launch. Image from Wikimedia.org.

The Indians continue proving they are in the space business for real.  The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), their success with the Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle (GSLV), and their continued success with their latest launch today of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) from the Satish Dhawan Space Center (formerly known as Sriharikota Launching Range), are all examples of India’s commitment to move forward into space.

Today’s PSLV launch successfully inserted a French SPOT 7 imagery satellite into a sun-synchronous low earth orbit (LEO).  Five small satellites were also boosted into orbit by PSLV:  Canada’s University of Toronto two satellites, numbered 4 and 5, from the Canadian advanced nanospace eXperiment program (CanX); one picosat (PSAT) and nanosat (NSAT) from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University VELOX-I; and a German ship-tracking satellite, Automatic Identification System satellite 1 (AISat 1).  All of these satellite will be in LEO as well.

Such an international satellite payload base should be no surprise when you consider the cost of a PSLV launch:  $75 million.  This is small change compared the to the mounting costs of launching a rocket through the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program run through the United Launch Alliance (ULA–about $450 million per launch–here’s why), but may be a little more that what a SpaceX launch costs ($56-$60 million).  PSLV even gives the Arianespace Ariane5 launches, which currently run at about $192 million per launch, some interesting competition.

While $75 million per launch nearly seems downright reasonable in the weird world of the space launch business, keep in mind that  that number is also nearly the price of what it cost India to run an entire Mars probe program, MOM, in which the probe, Mangalyaan, is expected to orbit the red planet this September.

GSLV, PSLV, and MOM–they are all proof positive to any doubters that the Indians are very serious about moving out into space.  Add in the very inexpensive costs of launch and space project management, and it shouldn’t be very surprising they are rapidly gaining space business from other nations.  IF the Indians, through their Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), can successfully keep the costs down while increasing launch frequency and availability, then this development could be quite a boon for India, economically, technologically, and perhaps socially(?).

I wonder if they have any work for me over there?  Hmmmm…


SpaceX a Catalyst for Change to European Space Launch


Most of this site’s readers are somewhat familiar with the kerfuffle concerning SpaceX and the US government’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) contract.  For those who aren’t, there are quite a few sources for the story, including this site.  But the US government isn’t the only one on the defensive from SpaceX’s aggressive launch development program and PR campaign.

According to this Reuters post (written today), a few European companies are concerned that SpaceX’s low launch prices will make the European offerings look overpriced and irrelevant.  Specifically, Airbus’ branch of Defense and Space (the builder of the Ariane rocket), and Safran (no, not saffron), a company that builds solid rocket motors.

Unsubstantiated rumors go from there, with speculation that the companies of Airbus and Safran would like to start consolidation moves to fight SpaceX’s low rocket prices.  Will this kind of reorganization really help against SpaceX?  If European big companies and bureaucracies run like American big companies and bureaucracies, I don’t believe it will.

I do believe the companies are right to respect the progress SpaceX is making with the Falcon 9 rocket.  But, and this is also a sticking point with the US government, SpaceX have not yet launched a rocket able to take very heavy satellite payloads into geosynchronous orbit (GEO)–at least until later this year (so their website says).  So, there is some time to think the consolidation idea through.

Let’s look at how SpaceX is run.  SpaceX is fairly lean in its day-to-day operations.  And I’ve heard from certain sources that Elon Musk intends to run the company in “internet startup” mode for a good long time.  They’ve also been “iterating” their Falcon 9 rocket designs almost every single launch, something that is considered quite risky in the industry.  The company has “only” some 3,000 employees.  Airbus, on the other hand, is big.  It’s very big.  According to the wiki, the company employs 63,000 people.  Safran is even bigger, with 66,300 employees.

What happens when big companies merge?  Just guessing from here on out, but I believe there will be some growing pains.  People will get laid off.  Morale takes a hit because of mixed messages about who will remain employed.  Every group will be reorganized, and need time to adjust to different bosses and expectations.  Plans will need to be re-explained and reviewed to many different people.  Such a process requires a few years at least until a company can effectively move forward again.

But perhaps more importantly, the companies will form a bigger entity, and bigger almost never means “quick to respond.”  A bigger organization will be unable to respond appropriately to a company as nimble and as small as SpaceX.  Because combining two bureaucracies doesn’t produce a smaller, streamlined and competitive bureaucracy, but an even bigger one, with more fingers in the launch pie.  More fingers in the pie, or stakeholders, may make risk-taking almost impossible.  How will any of these potential results make launch costs cheaper?

While European laws are different than the ones here in the US, there may also be a monopoly question.  Instead of going the route of merging, why not decide to have the two companies become more competitive with each other?  This may be a foreign concept to some countries over there, especially France.

Either way, SpaceX will probably keep on its track, iterating rockets quickly, and maybe even successfully launching some heavy payloads into orbit with newer, possibly reusable, rockets, getting some European launch contracts in the process.  That will surely get some competition going.

Other People’s Money–How the DoD Spends Yours On Space

Magnifying Glass

What you’re about to read are my opinions, based on experiences with government, both as the government military and as a contractor.  I am also taking the history of DoD space acquisitions, including relevant Government Accountability Office reports, into account to inform my opinion.  My contention is:  whatever the Department of Defense is saying they’re planning with military/intelligence space operations, they’re plan will not result in cost savings to the taxpayer.  Nor will it result in a more secure and robust military space constellation.  Are the opinions valid?  I think so, but read on if you’re interested and see if there’s a nugget in here for you.


By now, everyone following the space scene probably knows of SpaceX’s complaints against the Department of Defense regarding its current launch vehicle contract with the United Launch Alliance (ULA).  The contract, created and accepted by the USAF without putting it up for competition, is an agreement with ULA to supply rocket “cores” (first stage rocket booster bodies) for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV).  Currently, the United States Air Force is happy with the ULA as its sole provider for a possible 36 cores which will likely be used in about 20 launches (heavier satellites require more booster cores during launch) until around fiscal year 2019.

Initially, the USAF opened another 14 launches to competition, so companies like SpaceX could put their Falcon 9 rocket up against the ULA and other competitors in attempts to win those launches.  The theory for this openness being competition would help drive down launch prices.  And they need to be driven down.  In the current USAF EELV contract, the ULA’s rocket cores are as high as $460 million per launch.

SpaceX say they can launch their rockets for as little as $50 million, but that if they went with USAF requirements, the price per launch might rise as high as $90 million–still a significant savings.   But then the USAF decided to cut the competitive launch slots from 14 to 7 or maybe even to just one.  Their primary reason for the cuts:  a decreased demand for new satellites.

Simple complexity

The USAF cites the fact that satellites, like GPS, are lasting longer than the time-spans they were originally designed for.  That’s good news for the USAF and better news of the taxpayer, right?  Yes, unless competitive and cheaper rockets are important to you.  Now, consider this piece of information the DoD imparted to the good folks at Defensenews.com:  the DoD is putting MORE payloads on a single satellite because it currently costs so much to launch DoD satellites.  Sounds good on paper–almost as if the DoD is attempting to be a good custodian of the taxpayer’s funds.

Let’s examine what this little payload tidbit means.  Ignoring the fact that putting “all our eggs in one basket” is never really a good idea for a military organization assigned to defend the US against attack.  It’s also hard to reconcile the DoD’s ideas with Undersecretary Fanning’s concepts of disaggregation, diversity, proliferation, and distribution for “space system resiliency.”  Instead, let’s just look at the money.  DoD satellites already cost a lot of money (USAF General Shelton gives figures of $1.5 BILLION!) because the US government tends to change requirements (and those changes take time, which equals money), the USAF in particular is risk-averse and implementing mission assurance to a fault during rocket builds and launches (also taking time and money), and because the payloads are very specialized (sometimes one of a kind–requiring expensive people with very specialized knowledge).  But now, the DoD thinks it’s a great idea to put more payloads on a single satellite.

after All, Nasa does it…

“Now wait a minute!” you’re probably thinking, “NASA puts multiple payloads on their satellites all the time.  What’s the issue with the DoD doing this?”  You’re question is valid.  But there are some differences between NASA and the DoD.  The biggest difference is that NASA is a civilian space research organization.  The DoD is all about defending the nation.

What this means is that NASA will almost always be building “one-off” satellites.  Every area of research they decide to explore is likely an area that’s never been explored before.  So payload instrumentation must be tailored to their missions.  Sure, they try to use payload instrumentation invented for other spacecraft, but unique, expensive spacecraft is a result of their mandate.  It’s also one of the reasons why SpaceX’s Elon Musk is puzzled at the DoD’s reticence to use his Falcons.  If NASA is building these unique satellites and trusting SpaceX to get them safely into space, why won’t the DoD trust SpaceX?

The reason why the DoD doesn’t is also the difference between NASA and the DoD.  The DoD must be able to defend the nation and it must do so reliably.  In this case it wants a “reliable” (which currently means expensive) launch platform to get their already expensive satellites into orbit around the Earth.  At least this is the rationale the DoD is using for continuing with the ULA as sole partner in the EELV contract.  But will putting more payloads increase reliability and decrease expenses in the DoD?  What does adding more payloads mean, and who would own them?

stakeholder requirements Roulette

Adding payloads means there are more “stakeholders” or customers that are involved in an already fairly long and drawn out process.  Who would these possibly be in the DoD?  Definitely the USAF, likely the Navy, perhaps the Army, and of course each service has their own intelligence service, so they might be involved, too.

Each payload stakeholder has their own requirements–their own special mission focuses.  For an example, and using unclassified and civilian players to make it easy, let’s pretend the NOAA has a payload on board a particular satellite.  Let’s also say Sirius/XM has a payload on the same satellite.  Then, just to make it interesting, let’s have DigitalGlobe (or Skybox) have a payload on board that satellite as well.

The NOAA’s payload would be an infrared weather sensor.  Sirius/XM’s would be a radio receiver/transmitter.  And DigitalGlobe’s payload is a basic imagery sensor.  As you can see, every single payload is quite different, and each one has a very different mission.

The NOAA would be interested in aiming it’s infrared sensor at areas where the weather is doing something interesting–but because weather is weather, it’s difficult to know when and where to aim that sensor to catch those interesting events.  But Sirius/XM’s mission is simpler:  just aim their antennas at the Earth to receive and transmit expensive, digital radio Nirvana to the world.  But DigitalGlobe’s mission is more interesting:  get pictures of events and changes on the world’s surface wherever they can.

power and priority

Think also of the payload power requirements.  Batteries need to be bigger, as do solar panels.  So the satellite becomes heavier.  Each payload not only has different power requirements, but then they typically have back-up systems in case the primary source “disappears.”  And what might happen if one payload suddenly experiences issues?  Do the other payloads have to stop operations while the one ailing payload is being tended to?  Especially if the troublesome payload needs more power than normal?

Just juggling how the different payloads would aim at places on the world they are interested in would be challenging.  And, oh by the way, the data each one is transmitting back to the Earth is very different from the other.  DigitalGlobe’s imagery data would need a lot of bandwidth to get the relevant information down to the ground station.  Sirius/XM maybe not as much.  And who knows how much bandwidth the NOAA payload would need.  But they would all be competing for time to download data and upload commands.

It’s not just integrating and coordinating the payloads on the satellite bus–it’s also figuring out the data and link sharing requirements of every single multipayload satellite.  Will there be one payload that takes priority over the others?  Does that mean that payload will always be the first to send and receive data?   What happens if one lesser priority payload is affecting the performance of the priority payload?  Does that get turned off then?  And all of those payloads may mean upgrading satellite ground stations and terminals to be able to cope with those varying requirements (and that, of course, means more money is needed).

So, instead of going with a “simple” and relatively inexpensive design of one satellite and one payload that could be possibly built on an assembly line, we have a very complicated, certainly unique satellite that can’t be built on an assembly line.  Which means it becomes definitely more expensive because of the time required to coordinate the different payload stakeholders.  There’s more expense because of the time required to design all the different payloads and their backup systems into the satellite (then coordinate that among the three, receive corrections, re-design, etc.), and then possibly re-designing and implementing a ground system (the government calls it ground architecture) that can cope with these new payloads.

The DoD says building this expensive, one-of-a-kind satellite with multiple payloads is supposed to save money.

Irony:  No stomach for risk in military

However, then Air Force Space Command’s General Shelton says the DoD needs to use expensive launch systems because they guarantee they can launch expensive and unique “National Security Space” satellites without going kablooey.  The thing is, launching satellites is kind of like the stock market:  past excellent performance doesn’t guarantee future continuance of that performance.

What if the expensive ULA booster cores blow up, in spite of all the time-consuming and expensive safeguards?  First there would be an investigation, which takes more time and money.  Then the USAF goes back to the drawing boards, and builds another really expensive satellite.  It also means the USAF would clamp down on themselves and the ULA during the whole build up, slowing things down because they don’t want the rocket to explode again (which equals more money).  There might possibly be new people in charge depending on investigation results.

the “no-win” situation

Let’s say everything goes well, though, and this multipayload satellite is successfully launched.  Then the DoD would say, “Well, we need less satellites, because now we can accomplish a lot more missions with one satellite.”  So, using the USAF’s original logic for cutting down on the competitive EELV launch slots, they’d probably cut some more, because:  not enough new satellites are needed, so not so many launches are needed.

This would possibly mean, because it was the justification for ULA’s existence and price increases in the past, launches would cost more.  Because what would likely happen is the USAF would use the ULA’s rocket cores, but less of them, for the same amount of money they paid on this latest contract.  Which means the launches cost more.  And they’d probably have a few unused rocket cores that would eventually be placed on the “discount shelf.”

So, what the DoD and USAF are saying, versus what they are doing (and based their contract actions in the past), are at odds with each other.  And they certainly don’t seem to be on a path to decrease the prices of building and launching satellites.  Just because they’re saying the budget-friendly words, doesn’t mean they’re true.  Two other words–“shell game”–come to mind…


SpaceX and the ULA: Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla?

SpaceX vs. the ULA–the ULA vs. SpaceX. Who is who? Image from wikia.net.

Maybe it’s more David and Goliath, but I prefer the imagery of two rocket manufacturers duking it out as Japanese Kaijin, “Pacific Rim”-style.  But who is who?

This latest Spacenews.com post hosts the written exchanges between SpaceX’s Elon Musk, and United Launch Alliance’s Michael Gass.  These questions and answers were requested by the Senate Committee on Approprations’ Senate Defense Subcommittee, and meant to give each company the chance to make its case about why the Department of Defense (DoD) should or shouldn’t change the EELV contract.  The links to those questions and answers are in Spacenews.com’s post, so go there to see how each company questions and answers the other.  If you’re interested in the future of space launch, they are interesting reads.

Musk wants to give the Air Force and other government agencies better launch options, saying the ULA is a “monopoly provider” to the Pentagon’s current EELV contract and that current launches cost way too much.  He’d like that changed, but admits to Gass that SpaceX can only provide for 60% of the launch requirements of the Air Force.  But, Musk predicts that SpaceX’s requirement fulfillment capability, which would eventually include heavy lift rockets, would be at 100% by the time 2018 rolls around.  If they continue to be successful in their progressive tests and launches, that might be possible.

On the other hand, Gass is fairly happy with the way things are between the ULA and the EELV contract.  His response is “what monopoly?”  and “We’re cheaper now than we were then.”

Here’s the thing–Gass is a good politician.  The difference between how he answers SpaceX’s questions, versus how Musk answers the ULA’s questions is night and day.  Notice how there is not really a single number or fact Gass uses in his answers that would allow anyone to pin him or the ULA down?  In fact, he doesn’t use his own numbers and facts, but things other people have stated, like General Shelton’s quote about the $4.4 billion savings.  So while it appears like Gass is answering, all he’s really done is given himself and the ULA some wiggle room.  And I am sure there are a few Air Force space acquisitions officers cheering him on.

Musk, on the other hand, has no problem answering the ULA’s questions with facts.  I’m not saying Musk is an angel and that SpaceX is the answer to all of the US launch prayers.  But Musk appears to be a bit more on the up and up with his answers, unafraid to be pinned down, and angling to get in on DoD EELV launches.

But I do agree with SpaceNews.com’s assessment about the exchange:  there was no knock-out.  Both Godzilla and MechaGodzilla are still standing in the wasteland.

Why Do DoD National Security Space Launch Programs Costs Keep Rising?

Rising Launch Costs

This is what the DoD thinks being a custodian of the Taxpayer’s money looks like.

On March 5, 2014, the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee held a hearing about National Security Space Launch Programs.  The hearing was a session with SpaceX’s Elon Musk, and the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Michael Gass concerning the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program and contract with the Department of Defense (DoD) and the program’s rising launch costs.  The costs of launching a rocket through EELV have been rising since Boeing and Lockheed Martin formed the ULA in 2006.  Why then, are they rising?

The answer may lie in Stewart Money’s (The Space Review writer) analysis and reporting of the ULA’s launch prices.  Before getting into his numbers, keep in mind the whole point of the EELV contract was to cut launch prices taxpayers were paying by 25-50%.  Boeing and Lockheed Martin both won EELV contracts in 1998.  In FY 2002, before Boeing and Lockheed Martin formed the ULA partnership, a launch might cost $72 million.  Potentially, then, the whole idea was to bring launch costs down to $36 million.  That didn’t happen.  Mr. Money brings up DoD estimates that EACH unit (including rocket cores and subsidies) the ULA put on a launchpad in FY 2010 cost an average of $272 million.  For FY 2012, the ULA’s charges rose to $425 million per unit.

To put some of these costs into perspective, it only costs SpaceX about $57 million to launch their newest generation of rockets with revolutionary rocket engines and configurations.  And SpaceX is adding landing legs free of charge.  So why does it cost the ULA so much more?

During the Subcommittee hearing, the ULA pushed the idea the DoD is responsible for many of the EELV’s extra costs.  They clarified that the extra costs come from the amount of requirements changes and mission assurance processes imposed during each launch build up.  The ULA also believe SpaceX’s launch costs would be significantly more than what SpaceX is charging currently to customers, because SpaceX would need to address DoD/USAF requirements during launch.

Using the initial SpaceX launch cost as a baseline, if the government decided to open the entire launch allotment in the EELV contract to SpaceX and others instead of giving the ULA its original launch allotment, SpaceX, all on its own, could launch 7 rockets for the price of the ULA’s one.  This would be without needing to comply with more government requirements.  However, Mr. Musk also agreed during the hearing that if his company faced the same launch requirements the ULA faced, his company’s costs would go up 50% per launch (to $90 million).  Even that “markup” means four SpaceX rockets could be purchased for the price of one ULA rocket.  It’s a relative bargain.

And SpaceX is aiming to make launch cheaper.  If they can make their Falcon rockets reusable, as they have been slowly doing, the ULA $425 million price tag will just make the DoD contract deal look silly and irresponsible with taxpayer money.  For now, the Senate Subcommittee can’t seem to agree that competition in the launch industry is a good thing, especially regarding established contracts for National Security Space Launch Programs.  The USAF is obstinately continuing down its planned path of contractual “not-rocking-the-boat” by paying wheelbarrows of money to the ULA to slowly launch the majority of rockets, instead of heading to Musk’s Mega-cheap Missile Market.