In March 2016 the American ULA (United Launch Alliance) sent a resupply vehicle carrying 7.2 tons of cargo to the ISS (International Space Station). An Atlas 5 EELV rocket was used and was the heaviest load this model had taken up so far. This was the third ULA launch for 2016 and the 106th since ULA was created in 2006. ULA uses two launchers that were originally designed for military purposes and later adapted as satellite launchers. The Atlas 5 is a 334 ton rocket that can (depending on model) put 29 tons into low orbit and 13 tons into GTO orbit. One potential problem here is that Atlas 5 is dependent on Russian RD-180 rocket motors. The Delta 4 can weigh up to 733 tons and put 22 tons into low orbit and 13 tons into GTO orbit. The Delta 4 uses American made engines.
The ULA monopoly has been threatened by SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) a private company that had its first successful commercial launch in 2013. SpaceX also recently demonstrated successful operation of a booster rocket that can return and land under its own power. This will cut the cost of putting anything into orbit and is a major breakthrough in launcher technology.
More bad news for ULA came in late April when the U.S. Air Force agreed to pay SpaceX $83 million to launch a new GPS satellite. That price is 40 percent lower than what ULA charges and if SpaceX succeeds they will get more such work as the air force is putting over a dozen new GPS satellites in orbit in the near future. In response ULA is scrambling to cut costs, innovate and become competitive.
So far 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 2016.
SpaceX offers lower prices (even without the self-landing booster) 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.
While the Delta 4 and Atlas V have a proven record of reliability, SpaceX offers competition and that usually means the development of better and cheaper technology. Lockheed Martin and Boeing have lots of friends in Congress and that may prove to be the deciding factor into keeping government launch services an expensive monopoly.
Meanwhile SpaceX continues to put its new technology to use. In September 2014 SpaceX, put its second AsiaSat communications satellite into high (geosynchronous transfer) stationary orbit over East Asia. The five ton AsiaSat 6 is designed to last a minimum of 15 years. The AsiaSat birds broadcast video and more of them are going up until they can deliver video to all of East Asia. SpaceX does more than launch satellites. In 2012 SpaceX began running cargo missions to the ISS (International Space Station). SpaceX is negotiating to begin carrying personnel to and from the ISS.
What SpaceX has accomplished is good news for other private firms seeking to developing capabilities for launching stuff into orbit. SpaceX was a pioneer by breaking the cartel that had long controlled U.S. government satellite launch services. Since 2006 all this business has gone to a government-approved ULA monopoly 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. From the beginning space vehicles were designed by government organizations and construction was subcontracted to aviation firms, turning these companies into “aerospace” companies. It was believed that no private company could break into this business without an invitation and assistance from the government. SpaceX was founded in 2002 to prove that private enterprise could do a better job and, as has happened so many times in the past, this worked.
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 ISS (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.