Sunday, December 27, 2009

OSTP issues report on dismal outlook for space launch propulsion R&D

The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) recently issued a report, Assessment of U.S. Space Launch Vehicle Engine Production Capacity, on December 23 which provides a dismal outlook for the future of research and development of space launch propulsion systems in the United States.  The report noted that the US share of the satellite launch market has declined dramatically over the last decade to currently only 17% of the market, behind Russia with 42% market share and European Union with 21% market share.  The result of the launch market decline has not only created an overcapacity of the US launch systems but has also consequently affected the rocket propulsion engine market.

The report attributed part of the decline in US share of market to the decrease in global demand for satellite telecommunication and broadband services.  OSTP also noted the that foreign competitors have been able to offer launch services at considerably lower costs to telecommunications companies and satellite operators than US companies.  Curiously, there was no mention of the impact of the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR) which became actively enforced in 1999 after the Loral Space System scandal in China broke wide open.  Ironically, the same year the scandal broke, 1997, saw a record number of US space launches since the end of the Apollo era.  Given that OSTP had over a year in which to assess the impact of ITAR restrictions on US launch market before issuing its report, an ITAR impact analysis should have been included as ITAR directly affects to the rocket propulsion market.

Four US companies supply the majority of launch propulsion systems to the US market - Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, Alliant Techsystems, Space Exploration Technologies, and Aerojet.  Lockheed Martin contracts with Russia's Energomash RD-180 rocket engines for Delta IV production.   Because of the overcapacity of the satellite market, these companies have scant capital to invest in developing new propulsion technology.  According to the OSTP report, the development programs of these space technology concern improving the performance of already existing technology and not breaking new ground for future technology.  The one exception mentioned in the report is the Integrated High Payoff Rocket Propulsion Technologies (IHPRPT) program jointly managed by NASA Exploration System Directorate through Marshall Space Flight Center and the Department of Defense through the US Air Force Research Laboratory at Edwards Air Force Base in California.  This program is dedicated to developing new liquid fuel and solid fuel rocket engine technology which could double thrust and specific impulse of current boosters.  However, the report makes no mention of the hypersonic scramjet technology program managed by the US Air Force under contract to Orbital Sciences.

In summary, the report identified two critical concerns - the maintenance of a supplier base producing high quality parts necessary for a successful space program, and retaining a long-term work force with sufficient knowledge base to provide continuity to US space launch market.  The OSTP argues that without signicant government and commercial investment in space propulsion technology R&D, the US will not be able to maintain its technological superiority, let alone identify and develop breakthrough cost saving technologies or attract younger, bright engineers to sustain its talent base in technology development.

Overall, the report may be laying the groundwork for the reestablishment of NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts which was shuttered in 2007.  President Obama's administration has been focused on developing new NASA science and technology education programs  which NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has touted as recently as December 9 at AIAA meeting.

Note:  The OSTP report came a timely moment on which to base the first post on this blog.  This new blog is under development, and will be updated regularly with news related to rocket and space propulsion technology.    At left side will be a set of links to Wikipedia detailing historical development of different rocket engines and their hierarchy.  The de Laval nozzle was one of the most crucial technological innovations to help foster modern rocket engine developments and is therefore linked first.

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