The launch industry depression: when will it end?
Is the worst yet to come?
While the launch industry is currently in dire straits, executives cautioned that harder times may be ahead. Clay Mowry, president of the US office of Arianespace, noted that by some accounts only two or three commercial communications satellites were ordered in 2002, a sharp decline from just a few years ago. That lack of satellite orders will translate into a lack of launches in a few years, when the satellites are completed. “Last year was a really terrible year in terms of looking at the future,” Mowry said.
With no evidence of anything more than a modest recovery later in the decade (based in part on predicted launches of replacement satellites), commercial vehicle companies are looking to the government for support, either through launch contracts or direct funding. Rymarcsuk went so far as to say that that some companies “without government backing will not survive,” although he declined to identify specific companies.
In Europe, a European Space Agency Ministerial Council meeting is scheduled for May 27 to discuss launch vehicle issues, Mowry said. At that meeting ministers of ESA’s member states are expected to decide on the future of the Ariane 5, including what additional funding it will provide to correct problems with the Ariane 5 ECA, which failed on its inaugural flight last December. Ministers are also expected to make a final decision on a proposal to launch Soyuz rockets from the space center in Kourou to serve payloads too small to be adequately served by the Ariane 5.
In the US, the Air Force has proposed spending $540 million between 2004 and 2009 to support the two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) programs, the Atlas 5 and Delta 4, said Air Force Lt. Col. Blaise Kordell, the deputy chief of space launch and ranges for the Directorate of Air and Space Operations. That funding will be used for a variety of purposes, from infrastructure and personnel support to additional reliability engineering of the vehicles, including upgrades to the RL10 engine used on the upper stage of both vehicles. The Air Force also has no plans to go from two EELV companies to one, as had previously been speculated in the media and within the industry.
The industry, though, is skeptical that the promised Air Force funding will be sufficient. When asked, Schnaars said she was not prepared to discuss specific dollar amounts, only that the funding “needs to be in greater numbers than are currently being discussed.” Rymarcsuk said that “only time will tell if this funding is enough.”
Additional US government support for the launch industry could come from a revised space transportation policy currently under review. Brett Alexander of the Office of Science and Technology Policy said that an interagency panel that had been working on the policy for several months was “95 percent” done by February 1. In the wake of the Columbia accident, work on the policy has been put on hold until after the Columbia Accident Investigation Board completes its final report, which may take several months. Alexander said that the outcome of the investigation could affect the space transportation policy, but it was too early to tell what impact, if any, it would have.
Despite the current poor state of the industry and the limited prospects for the future, those involved with commercial space transportation remain excited and optimistic. Schnaars participated in the panel just one day after attending the launch of a Delta 4 from Cape Canaveral carrying a Defense Department communications satellite. Participating in a launch “is one of the most exciting experiences,” she said. “It’s the closest thing to giving birth you guys will ever get.”
“The future is bright,” said Alexander, “but it could take a long, long time.”