The attendance for this session was impressive, proving once again that launch is a top contender as far as interest is concerned for the smallsat market segments.
Peter Beck of Rocket Lab, with 97 satellites in orbit in 2020, believes that 2021 will see an “even bigger monthly launch cadence and will be an incredibly busy time for us.” He also noted the firm will be relying on some recovered vehicle components. His next launch will find the Electron launch vehicle carrying 100 satellites to orbit, with four of the customers aboard this particular launch continuing their constellation builds.
When moderator Lou Zacharilla of SSPI inquired of Mr. Beck about the rumored mid-air helicopter recovery, he seemed to indicate that such a program was “relatively trivial” when compared to the task of rocket re-entry. Mr. Beck noted when asked about his ability to dream with all of his work and responsibilities, he replied, “In order to dream you first must sleep…”
Jarrod McLachlan of SpaceX also admitted there wasn’t much sleep at his company, either. He noted there’s a lot going on at SpaceX and that last year the firm produced four satellite rideshare missions, crew and Dragon launches, Starlink satellite deployments and the debut of a data program. All are especially proud of the world record breaking 143 smallsat dedicated launch that occurred last year, as well. He believes 2021 is already on track to beat the 2020 work record.
He added that the SpaceX Starship remains a top level project and the push is on toward a fully, relaunchable vehicle. Customer demand is extremely strong and SpaceX is going to have several very full rockets coming up. The company tries to create a very standard interface for payloads and if a client can fit their satellites within that defined box, SpaceX can get them into space. There’s a lot of creativity being shown as to how people are using this box. This is all part of SpaceX attempting to develop an ecosystem where customers can create what they need.
As far as any particular project that he finds extremely interesting, Mr. McLachlan said, “I love them all.” He was surprised about the SpaceX rideshare program being so public about the pricing aspects. He continued by stating that something new he’d never thought of usually comes across his desk every couple of weeks.
For Stephen Eisele of Virgin Orbit, his said his company had an historic year with Launcher 1, which made it to orbit with a flawless flight that delivered a NASA satellite to its direct target orbit — there was a lot of champagne and happiness upon that mission’s completion. The firm, he noted, offers a flexible, air launch system, a full array of launch services for customers plus a global launch network, all making Virgin Orbit a global solutions space company. He was certain 2021 will be huge year for the company. The company can handled quick call up solutions thanks to their ability to offer tailored services. He believes that all of the panelists and the launch industry in general all play important roles and compliment one another. Virgin Orbit can offer ultimate flex for customers and will play an important role in the defense and commercial markets.
As far as 2021 is concerned, Virgin Orbit has plans to get the next rocket launch off soon and a handful of missions this year will lead to a monthly cadence of launches. Investments have also been made to the company’s factory, as well, that will help create high throughput for building satellites at a rapid pace. Virgin Orbit will be a turnkey provider, addressing a niche market, where most of customers will require more individualized and specific requirements which means the company will be handling different types of mission requirements across the globe.
When queried by Mr. Zacharilla regarding various nations not having the capabilities to produce their own space capabilities, such as Nepal, and are niche markets such as that important to Virgin Orbit, Mr. Eisele stated that such was a big part of the company’s sovereign launch capabilities. The firm can control the entire launch environment and also stimulate the local logistics supply chain. The launch capabilities are totally mobile. He added that Virgin Orbit will be launching from Spaceport Cornwall in the UK and will also have a launch from Japan at the end of 2022. Virgin Orbit could well be seen as a “launcher airline” that will allow regional launches and enable small companies to get access to space, all part of the firm’s future vision.
The moderator then wanted to discuss various types of risks that enter into the launch equation. Mr. Beck said the primary risk is heading into launches again and again and managing to do so reliably is the hardest aspect. No one ever wants to lose a flight, but such can and does occur and that’s where customer trust plays such a crucial role. All systems and processes and an understanding of the vehicle must be totally reliable… that’s the absolute key.
For Stella Guillen of Arianespace, which has an amazing and successful launch record, relayed that when quality issues arise, they must be solved immediately. Additionally, when bringing in a new vehicle and new technology, every step must fit into a reasoned launch plan with consistency and quality. Everyone, she said, has issues at some point or another and all are constantly learning. The critical issue to to learn how to correct the challenges that come up and do so quickly. Consistency, mission management, relations with other companies, all those things are extremely important.
Mr. McLachlan of SpaceX stated the firm is certainly not risk averse. Granted, there is a very robust mission assurance process for the Falcon 9 program, whereas the Starship program lends itself to a more risk acceptance culture where a little more risk can be taken. Reusability, lessons learned, all of these elements are rolled into the production vehicle.
Mr. Eisele stated that as the company has humans in the launch loops due to it being an air launch systems, the safety of the entire system is taken very seriously and has a much more, robust, safe assurance program. “That’s why it took a little more time to evolve our program, due to the safety issues, he said. The Virgin Orbit risk posture is at the highest level to make certain launches are safe and effective. Nothing new is done unless all have considered and addressed all of the safety factors.
This year certainly seems to be not only the year for smallsats, but also the year for launch as more and more firms prepare to enter or continue their good works within this crucial market segment in efforts to ensure smallsats can be delivered to orbit reliably and quickly. The panelists all agreed that 2021 will be an amazing year for the smallsat launch industry.