Tag Archives: rockets

Two Years Later as a Space Industry Analyst

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Happy New Year!

Transitions are not unfamiliar to me. During my childhood, our family moved around a lot. We’d move to other countries occasionally, always from assignment to assignment on different Air Force bases. Each move contained challenges and over time, each time, I looked forward to the moves. A move meant I would see something different, make new friends, and learn something new. It was great being a Air Force “brat.”

I’d like to think growing up in a military family, moving, and as a result, adapting and learning, have influenced me positively. I might never have learned German, German culture, or eventually become aware of different perspectives from the American Way. My tolerance for risk might have been lower or non-existent. I might never have tried to make my luck with writing.

I have the same attitude towards job transitions. Each new job means there’s something new to learn, something different. So, how do I feel about changing from a satellite missile defense test manager and space operator to my current position as a space industry research analyst? It’s been over two years since I took on this writing gig.

I like the change! Heck yeah, I really like this last transition! I’m learning a lot, too.

I’ve always had an affinity for writing. My degree was in communications, for goodness sakes. I definitely am better at expressing myself in writing than speaking. Writing allows for my brain’s background processing to come to the fore in a nice tidy package once the processing is done. Writing about the space industry is icing on the cake.

But it’s not just about writing about the industry. It’s also learning about the industry, conducting research, finding great sources, reading whatever I can find, which can sometimes seem unrelated. Then I think about it all. I think about it in the gym. I think about it when I’m watching TV at home. I think about it when I’m sleeping. It’s the way my brain likes to work. Some of my better insights come from listening to podcasts not at all connected to my research. Some of my ideas just fall in my lap while running on the treadmill. It’s not tiring, and it’s not forced.

So, yes, my current job is a blast. So much so, I don’t really feel like it’s a job. I get to meet with interesting people from around the world. I get to study and learn about new trends in the industry. I get to write it all down. And, shockingly, people find the information I bring to them useful. It doesn’t hurt I’ve got a good boss, who also has a good boss. It doesn’t hurt I’m on a team full of great people. But what motivates me is finding and writing an analysis people use. It’s wonderful when that happens.

It’s not all sunshine and tea cakes all the time. And the transition between jobs was a bit rough, as part of the problem was me trying to figure out what I REALLY wanted to do. But I can honestly say I feel more fulfilled in this job than my prior work. Admittedly, my experiences and lessons learned in my prior work helped me in my transition to this job. And I’m still learning a lot. So I’ll mention a quick overview of my perception of the space industry today.

There is so much going on in the space industry, a person researching the category would really have to work hard to NOT learn something. Space situational awareness, small satellite growth, possible new entries in the launch market, reusable rocket stages, and more—there’s always a learning moment waiting around the corner. And that’s assuming a person stuck with studying only the American launch industry. But globally, there are trends that impact the launch industry, too.

There are the activities conducted by India and China. Both countries have very active space programs, with China’s commitment evidenced in it’s recent 2016 attainment as the world’s most prolific launcher for that year (actually, they tied with the US this year–I just finished updating our database–sorry). The Europeans haven’t been sitting still either. And there’s surely a story behind Russia’s alarming decline in launches for 2016 as well as a seeming decline in launch reliability, too.

That’s not to say that the U.S. is lagging. From my observation, the U.S. space industry is perhaps the most innovative and most vibrant it’s been in a while. But the U.S. space industry is also in transition, slowly switching from primarily government-sponsored missions relying on government launch services, to a healthier, and hopefully multi-pronged launch industry with many more customers. There are many, many plans, from many entrepreneurs and companies, some of which may actually transition to real businesses and opportunities.

The upshot is, I get to research, learn, ponder, and write about this changing and interesting industry. It’s been fun during the past few years, and I’m pretty sure it will be fun for the next few. This was a fortunate transition for me. Sorry if that sounds like bragging.

Transitions can be wonderful—if you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up. Oh, yeah!

 

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Launching satellites is getting cheaper?

Last year was pretty good for small satellites weighing less than 10 kg (22 lbs).   46 percent of all satellites launched in 2014 weighed less than 10 kg. A LOT of satellites were launched in 2014. Heck, just one Russian Dnepr rocket deployed 37 satellites during one launch last year. Many were deployed from the International Space Station. But while small satellites seem set to grow even more this year, one of the big limiting factors to that growth is the number of rockets that can launch them, inexpensively and reliably. And little oopsies such as what happened with the Antares and Falcon rockets aren’t doing much to increase the opportunities to launch small satellites.

However…

…there’s a company trying to join what appears to be the growing small satellite market business through providing cheaper prices for launching satellites. Rocket Lab, founded about eight years ago, is building a new rocket and is offering to launch a satellite for as low as $80,000. And that satellite has to be quite small–a 1U cubesat. 1U means 1 unit, the satellite, that is 10 cm (3.94 inches) by 10 cm by 10 cm big and weighs no more than 1.33 kg (2.93 lbs).

A person has the option to go bigger, but will need to pay more. Rocket Lab will graciously launch a 3U cubesat for $250,000. They will launch either one on their yet-to-be-launched Electron rocket. The rocket can only hold so much–8 1U cubesats and 24 3U cubesats per launch. It looks like there’s a bit of interest in the launch opportunities, which they’re projecting to start in the third quarter of 2016. Peter Beck, Rocket Lab CEO, explains some of the rationale for why their system will work in the video below.

The Electron rocket is new and full of interesting tech to make launch cheaper, and you can read about the rocket, here. But Rocket Lab is also building a commercial launch site in New Zealand. Part of the problem Rocket Lab has identified with the current active spaceports is how busy they are and how active the airspace is around those spaceports. In the U.S., certain transportation such as boats, trains, and planes are restricted from moving through spaces in which a rocket can launch and/or fail.

Rocket Lab also believe the location is perfect for launching satellites into “high inclination” orbits. Those orbits will probably be at angles of 90 degrees plus from the Earth’s equator since they’re specifically mentioning sun-synchronous orbits as the target for the satellites they’ll be launching. What, you don’t know what sun-synchronous is? You can go here to read about the sun-synchronous low earth orbit if you want to learn more.

Rocket Lab isn’t the only company focused on catering to the small satellite market. Firefly Space Systems is building their Alpha rocket, which will be able to launch at least 12 3U satellites and a bigger primary payload into sun-synchronous orbit. No advertised prices per satellite yet, but since there are less cubesats launched, and their CEO was quoting $8-9 million to launch an Alpha (vs. Electron’s $4.9 million per launch), the pricing might be slightly higher to launch a cubesat on an Alpha. And Firefly will still have to deal with the problems of current spaceports, unless they build their own (or perhaps lease from SpaceX?). But the Alpha can carry more mass.

Either way, it seems like more competition is coming to the small launcher market. I might be able to afford my small satellite fleet yet…

Moving Big Things with, um, Big Things?

It’s been a fairly hectic few weeks with not so much spare time–relatives were visiting. Which is great, but didn’t leave much for posts. For now, I leave you all with another of my Apollo 50th Anniversary Moment posts for the Space Foundation’s Space Watch.

The crawler-transporter is what carried the Apollo Saturn V rockets, and the Space Shuttle–as seen above. Image from NASA.

I know everyone else posted about going to the moon 46 years ago, which is a milestone. And I’ll get there, but the whole idea is to talk about what happened 50 years ago. Which is why I wrote about the NASA crawler-transporter and a potential issue they faced that might have stopped the whole Apollo program.

Here’s a little bit about the crawler-transporters in: Speeding to a Crawl. If you enjoy articles like that, you can dig through some of my other posts about it here, or on the Space Foundation’s Space Watch, which is sent out monthly.

Proof that some things don’t change…

DIDT

Here are some fun stories for you, courtesy of The Space Review. Perry Mason, shotguns, bombs, and Thor–all of these have a common element–the human.  Just click on this link: The weird ones. And of course the whole thing wouldn’t be complete without mentioning NOAA-19.

Can this happen today during space operations and in the space industry? If you’ve worked with people in any sort of way, then you know the answer to this. While Murphy may have cheered all of them on, the characters in these stories certainly didn’t need much encouragement. Remember, one of the steps in completing human condition therapy is acceptance…

Just one question, really, resulting from these stories: If a government satellite falls over in a high bay, do taxpayers still foot the bill even though they didn’t hear it? I think the answer, no matter what sort of PR is posted around that story, is sadly, yes. But happy reading!

SpaceX a Catalyst for Change to European Space Launch

SpaceMouse

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.