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Falcon 9 May 1 landing
A SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage lands at Cape Canaveral after a May 1 launch, as the company makes progress to reuse those stages in its bid to lower launch costs. (credit: SpaceX)

Is “Fast Space” fast enough?

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An hour before a half-day symposium on low-cost space access convened on Capitol Hill May 1, a Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carrying a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. Because of the secretive nature of the mission, SpaceX turned its full attention after stage separation to the return of the rocket’s first stage. Long-range tracking cameras were able to follow the stage’s return through clear morning skies as it performed it series of maneuvers, culminating with a landing on a pad at the former Launch Complex 13 at Cape Canaveral. That stage will likely fly again at some point in the coming months, as SpaceX demonstrates its ability to not just land first stages, but reuse them as well.

“Reusability is here from our perspective,” said Tim Hughes, senior vice president at SpaceX, during a panel session a few hours later at the Ultra Low Cost Access to Space (ULCATS) Symposium. SpaceX had already reflown a first stage for the first a month earlier, carrying the SES-10 communications satellite (see “Now to make it pay off”, The Space Review, April 3, 2017). A few days after the symposium, SpaceX customer BulgariaSat said its satellite, scheduled to launch in mid-June, would use a Falcon 9 first stage that first flew on an Iridium mission in January.

“We aim to launch as many as six previously-flown boosters this year,” Hughes said, a figure that includes the two side boosters for the first Falcon Heavy flight.

“Reusability is here from our perspective,” said SpaceX’s Hughes.

Reusability has long been seen as central to any effort to reduce launch costs: how can you expect to make launch more affordable, the argument goes, if you throw away the hardware after every launch? Yet decades of efforts by government programs to reduce launch costs through reusability have failed: either the vehicles never got off the ground or, like the shuttle, failed to meet their promises of reduced launch costs.

Now it’s the private sector that’s demonstrating reusability, and arguably more successfully than those earlier government programs. SpaceX executives have said that the company is already seeing some cost savings from its initial reusability work, with the promise of greater savings to come. Blue Origin, which has said its turnaround costs were minor for each flight of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle, plans to apply those lessons to its New Glenn orbital vehicle, whose first stage will be reusable.

So as Blue Origin and SpaceX, among other companies (including air-launch systems whose aircraft, of course, are reused) make continued progress into reusable vehicles, what’s the role of government? Should NASA and the US Air Force stand aside and let these companies continue their privately-funded efforts, or is there still a role for government-funded development of RLVs?

A study by the Air University on ULCATS made a case for the latter. The report, published earlier this year, recommended that the Air Force use public private partnerships to accelerate development of vehicles capable of that designed ultra low cost access. “The full and open competition will seek multiple US commercial partners to develop and demonstrate their proposed space systems in collaboration with USAF financial assistance and broader [US government] technical resources,” the report states.

That conclusion is weighted in the belief that ULCATS—defined as a factor of ten reduction in current launch costs—requires going beyond current efforts at reusability towards fully-reusable vehicles. And while private companies can lead such efforts, the report concludes there’s a role for the Defense Department and other federal agencies, provided it’s not done as a traditional acquisition program.

“[T]he flight rates and market demand required to achieve a 3X price reduction, and the ability to jump-start a virtuous cycle to continue growth towards 10X, are not possible without a significant level of change in organizational mission, strategy, structure, and funding in other federal agencies,” the report finds, calling for “national-level leadership” to support such efforts.

The Air University report saw ULCATS as key to a concept called “Fast Space” that calls for frequent and low-cost access to space. Such “aviation-like sortie access to space” opens up new possibilities in an era, the report argues, that the US is facing new threats to its military capabilities both on Earth and in orbit.

ULCATS, he said, “will reinvent America’s political vibrancy, economic viability, and national security effectiveness,” Kwast said. “This just happens to be the breakout of our age.”

“This study paints a picture of how our leaders in America can set the conditions for innovation in this space, because if we can have this first domino happen, where we actually achieve ultra low cost access to space, you will break open the marketplace,” said Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, commander of Air University, in opening remarks at the symposium.

Kwast appeared to be a true believer in the power of ULCATS, preaching with the fervor of the converted to an audience already favorable disposed to the potential of reusable launch vehicles. ULCATS, he said, “will reinvent America’s political vibrancy, economic viability, and national security effectiveness,” he said. “This just happens to be the breakout of our age.”

He appeared to have a more expansive vision of America’s future in space than even some in industry. When United Launch Alliance executive Les Kovacs discussed his company’s Cislunar 1000 vision—a plan that foresees 1,000 people working in cislunar space in 30 years—in a later panel, Kwast pushed back. “That sounded to me like a government program,” he said, arguing that this vision seemed too slow to him and didn’t take into account the faster progress that ULCATS, he believed, would enable. “We are living in the age of acceleration.”

But can government support, through the public private partnerships endorsed in the report, help accelerate that change, or slow it down? For now, it’s doing neither, since the Air Force and other agencies have not taken any steps to act on the report’s recommendations. During a panel discussion, Air Force Maj. Gen. Roger Teague, director of space programs in the office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, said there were no immediate plans for a request for proposals of some kind for RLVs.

“We’re going to continue to follow our EELV strategy,” he said. “Reusability is a feature, it is not an inherent requirement under the current acquisition strategy that we’re pursuing,” he said, adding that it could be a benefit.

There is one major ongoing military program to develop RLV technologies: DARPA’s Experimental Spaceplane 1 (XS-1) program. It seeks to develop a reusable first stage that, coupled with an expendable upper stage, could place medium-class payloads into orbit for a fraction of the cost of existing vehicles, like the expendable Minotaur IV.

But XS-1 has not been a particularly fast program. DARPA solicited proposals last year for phase 2 of the program, which would include development of a prototype vehicle. However, the agency is months late in awarding a contract; Air Force Magazine recently reported that only now is the agency in the “final stages” of selecting a winning bidder. Why the delay? “This is the government and things sometimes take time,” Michael Arnone of Spire Communications, a contractor authorized to speak about the program, told the publication.

At the symposium, many pinned their hopes on the National Space Council to help make ULCATS a priority for the government, bringing together civil and military agencies along with the private sector to support those efforts. But the space council doesn't exist yet, and what form it will take, and what priorities it will have, remain to be seen.

“It’s not necessarily a financial incentive for him to have the government involved, but it just sends him the signal that we’re in this together,” Floyd said of Stratolaunch founder Paul Allen.

Robert Walker, the former House Science Committee chairman who was a space policy adviser for the Trump campaign last fall, said in a panel discussion that he understood that the executive order formally re-establishing the council had already been drafted, and its release was “imminent.” Three weeks later, that executive order remains in waiting.

If the government does pursue some kind of public private partnership to support RLV development in pursuit of ULCATS, companies already working on such systems seem interested in participating, although not necessarily for the funding such programs would provide.

“From the Stratolaunch perspective, and specifically Paul Allen, it would give him some confidence that he’s heading in the right direction,” said Jean Floyd, president and CEO of Stratolaunch, funded by billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. “It’s not necessarily a financial incentive for him to have the government involved, but it just sends him the signal that we’re in this together.”

Brett Alexander, director of business development and strategy at Blue Origin, said it would depend on the purpose of the partnership. “For ULCATS, a reusable second stage is not really the end goal,” he said. “The end goal is the effect on the dynamic environment, the ecosystem, of the cost reduction and the operability.” He drew parallels with NASA’s commercial crew program, which started on focused technology development before moving into full-fledged systems.

SpaceX’s Hughes said partnerships can help accelerate progress. “That can help to accelerate things that may be far slower in terms of development in the absence of government money and support,” he said.

But representatives of all three companies made clear they were already investing in technologies that they believe will lower space access costs; Hughes reiterated a previous comment by SpaceX founder Elon Musk that the company had invested $1 billion into reusable technology. Reusable launch vehicles are coming—or are already here, as SpaceX has demonstrated—regardless of what the government does. The question is how, or even whether, the Air Force or other US government agencies can shape their development.