New generation of giant rockets are about to blast off and will be tested at Stennis

A drone captures an overhead view of an RS-25 rocket test at Stennis Space Center on Feb. 22, along with a rainbow. The core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System vehicle will use four RS-25 engines — relics from the space shuttle program that are being retrofitted with new controllers that are smarter and lighter than past computers.
A drone captures an overhead view of an RS-25 rocket test at Stennis Space Center on Feb. 22, along with a rainbow. The core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System vehicle will use four RS-25 engines — relics from the space shuttle program that are being retrofitted with new controllers that are smarter and lighter than past computers.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect changes in the story from Aerojet Rocketdyne.

It’s been 44 years since the mighty Saturn V last thundered skyward from a launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The towering rocket, generating enough power to lift 269,000 pounds into orbit, had been the workhorse of the Apollo moon missions.

Later this year, SpaceX plans to launch its most powerful rocket yet from the same pad. The long-awaited Falcon Heavy is key to the California company’s plans to get more defense business, send tourists around the moon and launch its first unmanned mission to Mars.

But unlike the Saturn V, the Falcon Heavy will have plenty of competition.

Years in the works and the product of hundreds of millions of dollars of investments, a new generation of huge rockets will soon take off. Their manufacturers range from space startups to aerospace giants to the space agencies of the United States, Russia and China.

Because of advances in fuel, materials and electronics, the new rockets, while smaller than some of the Space Age beasts, may be more efficient and cost-effective. They will be able to hoist big spy satellites to a high orbit or ferry crews into space.

The rush of new rockets has prompted some to question whether NASA even needs to build its own massive new space vehicle — and whether there will be enough launch business to go around.

After years of a monopoly, the lucrative business of launching sensitive national security satellites is now competitive. But at the same time, the launch demand for large satellites is not expected to change.

And in the case of SpaceX, the workhorse Falcon 9 rocket — which recently completed its 10th mission of the year — has been upgraded to the point where it can handle heavier loads than originally expected.

Whereas SpaceX first thought that it would fly the same numbers of Falcon 9s as Falcon Heavys, it is turning out that Falcon 9s will have two to three times as many commercial missions. The company’s May launch of the Inmarsat-5 F4 satellite on a Falcon 9 was originally slated for a Falcon Heavy.

“There is a part of the commercial market that requires Falcon Heavy,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX. “It’s there, and it’s going to be consistent, but it’s much smaller than we thought.”

SpaceX says the price of a Falcon Heavy launch will be at least $90 million, versus $62 million for its Falcon 9.

That hasn’t deterred rocket makers.

Last year, Inc. CEO Jeff Bezos announced a plan for a heavy-lift rocket called New Glenn to be built by his space firm, Blue Origin. The rocket, which will have two-stage and three-stage versions, was designed to launch commercial satellites and to take humans into space.

United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., has proposed a new rocket called the Vulcan, which would eventually replace its current intermediate- and heavy-lift vehicles.

Orbital ATK Inc., a commercial aerospace firm in Dulles, Va., intends to expand its lineup with its first intermediate and heavy-lift rockets, known for now as the Next Generation Launcher (NGL).

Europe’s Arianespace already can use its Ariane 5 heavy launcher to take two large satellites into space.

Niche market

While rockets may look similar on liftoff, their makers can be selective in the contracts they target.

SpaceX, for example, has tried to compete for nearly all types of launches, but Orbital ATK seems to be focusing on the extreme ends of the market — small and large payloads, said Carissa Christensen, chief executive of consulting firm Bryce Space and Technology.

“The launch market is complicated and so specialized that all of those players could find a niche,” she said.

The U.S. government and its contractors have a long history of developing large rockets. That includes the Saturn V, the largest and most powerful rocket ever flown successfully, and ULA’s Delta IV Heavy, the most powerful rocket currently used by the Air Force to carry national security satellites to orbit.

The heavy-lift launchers of tomorrow would take advantage of key developments in composite materials, electronics and other technologies.

The first-stage booster of ULA’s proposed Vulcan rocket, for example, could be powered by BE-4 engines under development by Blue Origin that run on oxygen-rich staged combustion of liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen. Those engines will also be used in Blue Origin’s New Glenn heavy-lift rocket.

Liquefied natural gas is cleaner than kerosene, a more conventional rocket fuel. That means it’s less likely to clog fuel lines in the engine and is easier to purge and use again, said Ann Karagozian, a UCLA professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Updated engines

The core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System vehicle will use four RS-25 engines left from the space shuttle program that are being retrofitted with new controllers that are smarter and lighter than past computers. Despite its age, the RS-25 is still considered the world’s most efficient booster engine.

NASA already had 14 engines that had previously flown on the space shuttle and enough material to make two new engines, said Jim Paulsen, vice president of NASA programs at Aerojet Rocketdyne, which makes the engines. The company will perform tests on the engines at Stennis to make sure that everything is running properly before being tested as a core stage.

Reusing parts after launch has changed the conversation about rocket economics, and it could be a factor in knocking down prices of the big rockets too, if there is enough demand. Both Blue Origin and SpaceX designed their first-stage boosters to be able to land after launch.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said the Falcon Heavy will attempt to land its two side boosters — which on its demonstration flight will be reused first stages from previous missions — as well as its center core booster in a kind of “synchronized aerial ballet.” He told an audience in Washington, D.C. Wednesday that there is a lot of risk associated with Falcon Heavy and a good chance that vehicle will not make it to orbit.

Shotwell said the company is working to see if it can bring the side boosters back to land, which would require overhauling its landing zone at Cape Canaveral. SpaceX may also need to build more drone ships if the company chooses to land the side boosters at sea, she said.

New competition

A boom in small satellites for Internet access, commercial imaging and Earth observation has led to a surge in new rocket companies, several of them based in Southern California.

While small launchers are being developed to give these satellites a dedicated ride to space, initial deployment of these so-called constellations is likely to require launches of 10 or more satellites at a time — and heavier rockets — to start operations as soon as possible, said Marco Caceres, senior space analyst at the Teal Group.

Demand for heavy rockets will remain relatively flat over the next 10 years, at 20 to 25 launches a year, according to data from Bryce Space and Technology. However, U.S. companies are expected to win more contracts in the international launch market, said Phil Smith, senior space analyst at Bryce Space and Technology.

SpaceX’s success two years ago in challenging ULA’s monopoly on military launches may have emboldened new challengers to try to compete for the limited number of military and other national security launches.

Orbital ATK plans to compete its proposed NGL intermediate- and heavy-lift rockets in future Air Force competitions. So far, the company has passed design reviews and is working toward a static fire of its four-segment heavy-lift booster in about 2022. The company expects that rocket to be operational in 2024.

Orbital ATK sees NGL as a natural progression from its smaller rockets, such as Pegasus and Antares. Antares currently delivers supplies for NASA to the International Space Station.

Orbital ATK and the Air Force together are investing more than $200 million to develop the launch system.

SpaceX also plans to seek certification from the Air Force for its Falcon Heavy for national security launches. After a demonstration flight later this year, the Falcon Heavy’s first customer launch will be for the Air Force.

NASA has embarked on a likely decades-long, multibillion-dollar program to develop its SLS rocket, the Orion crew capsule and its associated launch facilities.

The smallest version of the rocket is set to make its first, unmanned flight in 2019 when it journeys to a distant retrograde orbit around the moon. The larger, 365-foot version of the rocket is expected to make its first flight in 2028 or 2029.