SpaceX reusable rockets: launch pads turned into machine guns

SpaceX's Grasshopper rocket (SpaceX)
SpaceX’s Grasshopper rocket

I have to admit it. When I first saw the video of SpaceX’s reusable rocket it reminded me of crude 1950s rockets from TV, the kind that would land, thrusters first, on the surface of the moon to deliver silver-suited astronauts. For this reason, the SpaceX ‘grasshopper’ appeared to me at least to be a truly quixotic venture. Head-turning but a bit of a novelty.

Ross Andersen on Aeon explains their true, remarkable potential. Reuseable rockets, if the technology were perfected and scaled up, would create a kind of low-cost production line of transportation into space, which could open a lot of other possiblities.

[SpaceX chief Elon Musk] says he is working on a reusable rocket, one that can descend smoothly back to Earth after launch, and be ready to lift off again in an hour.
…He told me full reusability would reduce mission costs by two orders of magnitude, to tens of dollars per pound of weight. That’s the price that would convert Earth’s launch pads into machine guns, capable of firing streams of spacecraft at deep space destinations such as Mars.

This technology has progressed beyond the drawing board and is being tested in Texas. The prospect of rockets launching and delivering goods into space on an hourly basis would transform expectations for space development. As a guess, I’d say that from a geopolitical perspective, this sort of breakthrough would likely alter perceptions about US space power, as well. Particularly in a time when China and India are capturing headlines for their moon missions and Mars probes.

International Space Station: the Russian view

Like so many crises, the decision by the Russians to put the kibosh on the ISS after 2020 began in a courtroom, and not a Russian one. Elon Musk’s US-based SpaceX, which is developing rocket engines, had been pushing for a way to break the duolopy Lockheed Martin and Boeing have in sending military satellites into space. Once Russian deputy PM Dmitry Rogozin had been named in US sanctions leveled against Russian leaders, SpaceX asked a US Federal Court to bar the duopoly, known as United Launch Alliance, from buying Russian made RD-180 motors, which are used in Atlas rockets that can launch US military satellites.

“Mr Rogozin said the exports could continue if the US gave guarantees that the motors would not be used to launch military satellites. But, given ULA’s critical role in the US’s military satellite programme, such guarantees look unlikely,” the FT noted.

And while the Russians were reconsidering their rocket sales, they reconsidered the ISS and the state of the US and Russian global positioning system placements.

Below are the important statements regarding Russian plan to pull the plug on its participation on the International Space Station, first from Russia, then NASA, then United Launch Alliance, the joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. I have not seen a statement from the ESA or the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Please note: I have edited the quotes to focus only on the ISS, and not the rocket engines Russia sells to the US – which are addressed in a pointed statement from ULA further below.

Briefing by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and Head of the Federal Space Agency Oleg Ostapenko on international space cooperation

13 May 2014

We were somewhat surprised, if not amused, by the fact that the United States is prepared to reduce cooperation in every area with the Russian Federal Space Agency, except the ISS. Basically the US wants to keep those areas it’s interested in, but it’s ready to take its chances in other areas that are less interesting for them.

We also realise that the ISS is quite fragile, both literally and figuratively. This concerns manned space missions and the life of the astronauts, and we’ll therefore proceed extremely pragmatically and will not hamper the operation of the ISS in any way. However, it should be kept in mind that, by creating problems for us, for the Russian industry developing launch vehicles that can fly Russian cosmonauts and US astronauts to the ISS …

It is absolutely obvious that this is some kind of logical inconsistency on the part of the United States. The US creates obstacles with regard to launch vehicles and evacuation systems. But at the same time, it believes that the ISS should not be tampered with. Our US colleagues have told us that they would like to extend the ISS’ operation deadline until 2024. But the Russian Federal Space Agency and our colleagues, including the Academy of Sciences and the Russian Foundation for Advanced Research Projects are now ready to make some new long-term strategic proposals linked with the subsequent development of the Russian space programme after 2020. We plan to use the ISS exactly up to 2020.


On the Russian modules of the ISS

Specialists from the Russian Space Agency will confirm, as they’ve reported to the Government, that the Russian segment – strange as it may seem – is capable of operating independently from the US, but not vice versa. That’s a feature specific to the station.

On rockets

Russian rockets will remain the only means of delivering astronauts to the International Space Station for the next few years. The United States has no such spacecraft, and so dependence on Russia for extending the work of the ISS, although mutual, is larger for the United States.


Russian decision about ‘parrying threats’ not escalating them

We certainly won’t make the bad situation being deliberately created by Washington even worse. This isn’t about responding to military threats in outer space, of course; this is a different matter, for another kind of audience.

Rather, it’s about parrying threats, including prospective ones, related to anti-missile defence and our aerospace defence programmes. Not to mention civilian space exploration. We’re going to act with utmost care. What we’ve just said comes down to bringing about a respectful attitude toward us, our industry, and the interests that define our nation’s high-tech image.

A halt in launches

Comment from Federal Space Agency’s Oleg Ostapenko:

There were some obstacles, because launch licences had not been issued for 2014, 2015 and 2016. As of now, the licences for 2014 have been issued. What is our reasoning? We do have licences for spacecraft launches in 2014. But considering that our partner is not reliable, as Mr Rogozin has said, we are also considering the worst case scenarios.

We will keep working in Russia to resolve this issue, and we will also carry on our cooperation with NASA and the European Space Agency.

From NASA, which hadn’t been informed of the decision, a much more terse statement (in full):

Space cooperation has been a hallmark of US-Russia relations, including during the height of the Cold War, and most notably, in the past 13 consecutive years of continuous human presence on board the International Space Station. Ongoing operations on the ISS continue on a normal basis with a planned return of crew tonight (at 9:58 p.m. EDT) and expected launch of a new crew in the next few weeks. We have not received any official notification from the Government of Russia on any changes in our space cooperation at this point.

Possibly one of the most interesting statements is from ULA (comprised of Lockheed Martin and Boeing) regarding the planned export restrictions on Russian rocket engines.

ULA’s statement in full is as follows:

ULA and our NPO Energomash supplier in Russia are not aware of any restrictions. However, if recent news reports are accurate, it affirms that SpaceX’s irresponsible actions have created unnecessary distractions, threatened US military satellite operations, and undermined our future relationship with the International Space Station.

We are hopeful that our two nations will engage in productive conversations over the coming months that will resolve the matter quickly.

ULA and our Department of Defense customers have always prepared contingency plans in the event of a supply disruption.

ULA has two launch vehicles that can support all of customers’ needs. We also maintain a two-year inventory of engines to enable a smooth transition to our other rocket, Delta, which has all US-produced rocket engines.

A final note. I think soon, in the not-too-distant future, the idea that the US would use Russian rockets to launch its military satellites into orbit will seem an oddity – and an extreme one – from a different time. If I had to describe that time, I would call it the era of benign globalization. And that period is passing fast.