Desperate for some innovation in space flight technology the U.S. has offered to do business with private space flight firms. Several have formed in the last decade to provide new tech and there have been some successes. The latest is a new space engine (SuperDraco) for manned orbital space craft that will enable the craft to land or dock with greater ease and accuracy and also provide an escape option for personnel on a launcher that runs into trouble before reaching orbit. SuperDraco is a variant on the Draco engines that already power the SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) launcher capsule during reentry after trips to the ISS (International Space station) or some other orbital mission.
What made SuperDraco more capable, reliable and cheaper was the use of 3-D printers to build engine components out of high-tech alloys. SpaceX was quick to adopt industrial grade 3-D printers that produce metal objects and use them for creating prototype and production parts. Since these rocket engines are not produced in large quantities the higher expense of using a 3-D printer is not a factor. SuperDraco is considered the first of a new generation of space flight equipment created using 3-D printers and silicon prototyping (using high res computer models to design and test new designs before building and testing a full scale one).
SpaceX has already managed to break the current cartel controlling U.S. government satellite launch services. For decades this business went to a handful of government contractors and since 2006 all this business has gone to a government-approved monopoly called the ULA (United Launch Alliance) which is composed of Lockheed Martin (Atlas 5 rocket) and Boeing (Delta 4). These two firms have dominated U.S. space launches for over half a century.
Lockheed Martin had been getting a lot more launch business because the Russian RD-180 engine of the Atlas 5 is more attractive (in terms of performance and price) option than the Delta 4. Unfortunately because of the current Russian misbehavior in Ukraine and American threats the Russians have cancelled the RD-180 deal. SpaceX stepped up and said it would have an Atlas 5 replacement ready in a few years.
This SpaceX pledge is not an idle boast. In 2012 SpaceX obtained its first contract to launch U.S. military cargo into space. SpaceX had earlier obtained a NASA contract which included 12 deliveries to the International Space Station (at $134 million each). What makes all this so noteworthy is that SpaceX developed its own launch rockets without any government help. SpaceX also developed the Dragon space vehicle, for delivering personnel and supplies to the International Space Station.
SpaceX has since proved that its rockets work and is pointing out that the SpaceX rockets can do the job cheaper than ULA. Currently ULA gets a billion dollar a year subsidy from the government that SpaceX would not require. SpaceX still has to get all the paperwork and approvals done so that they can handle classified missions. SpaceX does not see this as a problem, it’s simply going to take another year to satisfy all the bureaucrats and regulations.
The Atlas 5 is a 334 ton rocket that can 29 tons into low orbit and 13 tons into GTO orbit. One potential problem here is that Atlas 5 uses a Russian rocket that, while very cheap and reliable, was designed half a century ago. The Delta 4 can weigh up to 733 tons and put 22 tons into low orbit and 13 tons into GTO (high and stationary) orbit. The Delta 4 uses American made engines of more recent vintage. SpaceX has developed three launchers. The Falcon 1 was a developmental model, used mainly for testing and was first launched in 2006. Two of its five launches were a success and the model is now retired. The Falcon 9 is a 333 ton launcher that can lift ten tons into orbit and is competitive with the older (government developed) Delta 4 and the Atlas 5 launchers. Falcon 9 first launched in 2010, and entered service in 2012. The Falcon Heavy is a 1,462 ton rocket that can 53 tons into low orbit and 21 tons into GTO orbit. Falcon Heavy is a development of the Falcon 9 and will fly for the first time in 2014.
SpaceX offers lower prices and more flexibility than most government (usually military) developed launchers. As a privately owned company SpaceX has less bureaucracy and is quicker to adapt new technology for launch services. Many existing and potential SpaceX customers see this as the future of space transportation.