Space: The Future Arrived Unexpectedly


April 9, 2021: Most of the new developments in spaceflight tech have come from commercial firms, like SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) rapidly developing more effective rockets and satellite launchers. SpaceX inspired European countries, which had already developed some of the tech that SpaceX used to build their novel rockets and SLVs (Space Launch Vehicles). One of these techs was 3D printing of metal components for rocket engines and other major components of SLVs that are needed in small quantities. Use of traditional manufacturing methods like forging, machining and stamping metal are expensive and time consuming and expensive for small quantities. Change has been coming since the 1980s, when the concept of 3D printing tech arrived. Soon it was realized that eventually this tech would evolve to the point where handle metal components and complex objects could be built with a 3D device. For manufacturers, this would be a major revolution for anyone needing small numbers of complex systems or developing prototypes for testing and further refinement. Spacecraft developers and manufacturers were among the first to make very visible use of these new tech. The first decade of the 21st Century saw the appearance of the more effective 3D printers that could handle metal parts of different sizes and complexity.

SpaceX, an SLV design and manufacturing firm, was founded in 2002 with the goal of breaking into a market controlled by long-time suppliers. At the time these older firms had formed a legal cartel that monopolized satellite launch services for the U.S. government. This meant that after 2006 all this SLV business went to a government-approved monopoly called the ULA (United Launch Alliance) which is composed of Lockheed Martin (using Atlas 5 rockets) and Boeing (Delta 4). These two firms have dominated U.S. space launches for over half a century and in 2006 they officially monopolized it. But not for long, as the future arrived unexpectedly.

One of the existing techs that SpaceX applied to their innovative rocket and SLV designs was 3D printing of components, especially for the smaller, liquid fuel rockets used in the final stage of an SLV to put the payload into orbit. These final stage rockets required small thruster engines to maneuver satellites into a specific orbit or maneuver space vehicles when they were docking with space stations, or any chore that required that kind of precision maneuvering in a gravity-free environment.

The new tech SpaceX depended didn’t just come from the United States. Pioneering European 3D printing firms like EOS in Germany, developed “4D” printing which means not just creating individual components but complex larger components, some composed of several different materials. EOS subsidiary AMCM (Additive Manufacturing Customized Machines) developed a large-volume 3D printer for Orbex, a six-year-old Scottish firm that is building small (19 meter long) SLVs for delivering smallsats into polar LEO (Low Earth Orbit) by launching them from a spaceport in the far north (Scotland). Orbex wanted a 3D printer that could quickly produce complex components for liquid-fuel rocket engines. The 3D printer ordered by Orbex was able to print major components for three SLVs a month. When design or component materials problems are encountered during use of Orbex SLVs, components can be quickly redesigned, manufactured and installed for testing and regular use. This not only speeds up development and production it also reduces costs. These have all been goals of 3D printing (now also called Additive Manufacturing) for decades. All this was being done by young firms. Orbex was founded in the 1990s while AMCM was created in 2017.

By 2012 SpaceX obtained its first contract to launch U.S. military cargo into space. SpaceX had earlier obtained a NASA contract which included twelve deliveries to the International Space Station for $134 million each. What made all this so noteworthy is that SpaceX is the first privately owned space transportation company. 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 innovative rockets work and proved that SpaceX rockets could do the job cheaper. In contrast ULA was receiving a billion-dollar annual subsidy from the government that SpaceX did not require. SpaceX still had to get all the paperwork and approvals done so they could handle classified missions. For SpaceX that was not a problem as they were already prepared to spend a year or so to satisfy all the bureaucrats and regulations.

This all got started because the U.S. was desperate for some innovation in space flight technology and offered to do business with private space flight firms if the new companies could demonstrate their approach worked. Several such firms were formed after 2000 to provide new tech and there have been a growing number of successes. One was a new space engine (SuperDraco) for manned orbital spacecraft that enabled 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 was a variant on the Draco engines that already powered the SpaceX space vehicles during reentry after trips to the ISS or some other orbital mission. SuperDraco uses a storable liquid fuel which enabled it to more effectively be turned on and off while on a space mission. SuperDraco development encountered an April 2019 mishap. Such catastrophic flaws had to be planned for and handled effectively. SuperDraco quickly overcame problems like this because they had 3D printers that can quickly build new engine components out of high-tech alloys. As a result SpaceX was able to quickly fix flaws, built new SLVs or SLV components and test again. Problems that slowed down ULA and other old-tech firms could be overcome in weeks or months by the new manufacturers using 3D and 4D manufacturing. Since rocket engines were not produced in large quantities, the higher expense of using a 3-D printer was not a factor. SuperDraco was considered the first of a new generation of space flight equipment created using 3D printers as well as silicon prototyping. The computer-based prototyping used high-res computer models to design and test new designs before building and testing a full scale one. That rapid design and fabrication made it possible to quickly develop and manufacture new components to replace those that had failed during testing.

Within a decade of its founding, SpaceX managed to break the decades-old cartel controlling U.S. government satellite launch services. At the time Lockheed Martin had been getting a lot more launch business because the Russian RD-180 engine of the Atlas 5 was a more attractive (in terms of performance and price) option than the rival Delta 4. Unfortunately, because of the 2014 Russian misbehavior in Ukraine and subsequent American threats, the Russians canceled the RD-180 deal. SpaceX stepped up and said it would have an Atlas 5 replacement ready in a few years. This led the Russians to reconsider their RD-180 threats. But even resuming RD-180 shipments did not stop SpaceX.

This SpaceX pledge was not an idle boast. Dragon made its first cargo delivery to the ISS in 2012 and has since made over 21 successful deliveries, including one that carried live animals (mice) for ISS experiments and multiple reuses of Dragon spacecraft. After 2020 all Dragons were the larger and more capable Dragon 2. Dragon was built to be reused and six of the 13 Dragons built made two or three launches and deliveries.

SpaceX quickly proved that its rockets worked and demonstrated repeatedly that SpaceX rockets could do the job cheaper. For example, a ULA rocket launch that cost $420 million could be done by SpaceX for $90 million. ULA quickly became a lot more efficient and less expensive. But not quickly enough because SpaceX kept developing and putting into use cheaper and more effective technologies.

By 2018 it was clear that the ULA monopoly was gone for good and the ULA cartel resigned itself to continued downsizing and efforts to duplicate SpaceX technologies in an effort to stay in business. Even the Russians reluctantly admitted that the SpaceX reusable rockets, which repeatedly returned to earth and landed intact under their own power, had fundamentally changed the launcher business. The ULA, as well as European and Chinese space launcher operations, had to adapt to avoid losing all their commercial (and some of their military) business. New firms, like Orbex in the United Kingdom, are able to move faster than the larger established SLV operations to change. The ESA (European Space Agency) waited until early 2020 before issuing small contracts to three European rocket manufacturers to develop new tech competitive with SpaceX. That’s too slow, because ESA’s old-tech SLVs are, like the ULA, not competitive. The Chinese response is not much different the ESA's and Russia realizes that it's fading (before SpaceX) space program is doomed to runner-up status. Russia recently fell to third place in the number of annual SLV launches. During the Cold War Russia was usually first.


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