Commercial space companies are heralding a new phase in the space race as they lay down the groundwork for the future of space exploration. More than ever before, space agencies are turning to private startups and leading space ventures to create space technologies that will drive down launch costs, open up more opportunities thanks to a growing competitive landscape, and challenge a 60-year-old space status quo.
As part of this trend, the U.S. Armed Forces space service branch known as Space Force has awarded Rocket Lab, United Launch Alliance (ULA), Blue Origin, and SpaceX $88 million to develop prototype projects through its new Space Systems Command (SSC), which is responsible for developing and acquiring lethal and resilient space capabilities for warfighters. The technology development projects are essential to maintaining space security and advancing space technology.
More specifically, the SSC funds will go towards next-generation rocket engine testing, upper-stage resiliency enhancements, and orbital transfer and maneuver capabilities as part of the Space Force’s National Security Space Launch (NSSL) phase three strategy. In addition, the prototypes will accelerate the development of transformational space access capabilities and mobility and make them available for future launch vehicle procurement contracts, such as for trajectories beyond geosynchronous orbit.
All four selected businesses are pioneering 3D printing to develop space applications, including rocket parts, tools, and support equipment used by astronauts. For example, Blue Origin and Rocket Lab have hundreds of 3D printed components in their rockets, and SpaceX has even created additively manufactured (AM) parts for its crewed Dragon capsule. As advanced technologies continue to prove their worth, we can expect the leading space firms will continue to leverage AM.
The SSC’s Launch Enterprise in collaboration with the Space Development Corps’ Space Enterprise Consortium (SpEC), which was created in 2017 through the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center to bridge the cultural gap between military buyers and commercial space startups, solicited proposals for these projects on May 11, 2021. Four months later, the SSC announced that the contracts were awarded to current national security launch providers SpaceX and ULA and newcomers Blue Origin and Rocket Lab. These last two companies are now expected to compete in 2024 for the next round of national security launch service contracts and are on track to become NSSL phase three launch providers starting as soon as 2025.
Rocket system manufacturer Rocket Lab will receive $24.35 million to develop the Neutron launch vehicle’s upper stage to support national security and defense launch capabilities for scientific and experimental satellites for the largest and most critical national security payloads. Neutron is Rocket Lab’s medium-lift, eight-ton payload class launch vehicle for constellation deployment, cargo resupply, interplanetary missions, and even human spaceflight, expected to launch in 2024. Company founder and CEO Peter Beck said he is committed to building a next-generation rocket to transform space access for constellations and critical missions that will support the country’s national security.
“This award is a vote of confidence in Neutron and our ability to deliver low-cost, responsive, dedicated launch for the U.S. Government. We’ve built a trusted launch system with Electron, and we’ll do it again with Neutron to continue providing unfettered access to space with our new heavier-lift vehicle,” he stated.
Rocket Lab is known for its almost entirely 3D printed rocket engine, the Rutherford, which relies on an electric motor rather than gas and features prop valves, injectors, pumps, and engine chambers that are all 3D printed with electron beam melting technology. Although this engine has powered the company’s small satellite Electron launch vehicle, Rocket Lab is now shifting focus to the development of Neutron, which also leverages 3D printing for part production.
SpaceX will get $14.7 million for rapid throttling and restart testing of its Raptor rocket engine, designed for use on the Starship super-heavy rocket, set to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, and Mars. The funds will be used for liquid methane specification development and testing, and combustion stability analysis, and testing for its Raptor engine. Considered the future of the company’s missions, Raptor will carry spaceships off-Earth and is one of the first rocket engines to be powered by methane and designed to be reused one thousand times.
Several major accomplishments in 3D printing for space applications make SpaceX the original pioneer in the commercial space segment. The powerhouse began using 3D printing technology on spaceflight hardware in 2014 and has even shown interest in buying 3D printing company Velo3D in 2021.
As for ULA, the joint venture company born out of Boeing and Lockheed Martin will receive $24.35 million for uplink command and control of Centaur 5, the upper stage of its new Vulcan launch vehicle currently being developed to meet the needs of the NSSL program. The Vulcan Centaur rocket uses metal AM qualification and flight components provided by Oerlikon AM. Additionally, ULA has adopted 3D printing for the serial production of thermoplastic components and bespoke metal parts.
Finally, Jeff Bezos’ space undertaking Blue Origin will also get $24.35 million in funds. The company will use it towards cryogenic fluid management (CFM) of its New Glenn rocket’s second stage. CFM technology is an integral part of exploration systems for Earth-to-orbit transportation, manned missions to the Moon and Mars, planetary exploration, and in-situ resource utilization.
The Kent, Washington-based company has been leveraging additive technologies for years. Bezos was even spotted visiting the headquarters of space startup Relativity Space in early 2021, as reported by CNBC. Relativity Space founder Tim Ellis worked at Blue Origin before co-founding the company, which plans to build an entirely 3D printed rocket using patented wire-fed AM technology. Although neither Bezos nor Ellis commented on the visit, we hope that they will both escalate the use of AM in space applications.
The prototype projects for orbital transfer and maneuver are anticipated for the award at the start of the fiscal year 2022 (FY22), pending congressional approval of the FY22 budget request. The SpEC believes the orbital transfer prototype projects will improve space access capability for national security launch systems.
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