Revisiting a Few 2022 Space Activities

Just a reminder that no analysis will be published on 29 December and possibly 5 January (depending on events). I like my holidays, too!

Thank you for your interest and support throughout 2022. May your holidays be merry and your New Year be memorable (and fun). Just one more class/semester stands between my masters and me…

I attempted to identify some thought-provoking topics at the end of last year. So, I decided to try again this year. I’m changing it up, highlighting what I saw into categories: industry trends, activities, mindset/cultural challenges, and unseized opportunities. I will only provide summaries of the topics in the lists. I may delve further into specific topics later in 2023. 

Reviewing 2022 global space industry activities yields a few obvious annual accomplishments: the most rocket launches attempted (over 180 so far) and the most mass lifted to orbit (almost 1,000 tons). Weirdly, the top three nations launching rockets remained the same, despite Russia’s withdrawal from the commercial market. 

The following is my activities list. There may be many like it, but this one is mine. These were/are some of the events and projects I found interesting. 

Activities

  • Astra Space
  • The European LEO Communications Constellation
  • SpaceX’s Starship
  • SpaceX’s Falcon 9
  • Russian Withdrawal from Global Space Market
  • Project Kuiper Launch Contracts
  • Blue Origin’s New Shepard Failure

Astra Space

Even before 2022, Astra Space’s rocket launch service presented baffling information in almost every one of its public pronouncements. Those shifting narratives should have been seen as a big “SLOW DOWN” sign for potential investors. During 2022 (and not helpful in gaining any semblance of confidence in Astra), the company faced challenges, many of its own making, such as sketchy rocket reliability, core mission changes, and attempts to redefine reliability, cadence, and success. It hadn’t even established a reasonable semblance of any of those, as it floated visions of new rocket systems and smallsat constellations to lure more investor interest. 

The company has lost some upper management, is now cutting its workforce, can’t launch rockets, and lost 95% of its initial SPAC valuation. Despite the company getting a few launches under its belt, it seemed lost in its direction (which was already questionable) and now appears to be closing in on losing, period. That’s too bad for the company’s workforce, especially during the holidays. Lessons exist for any entrepreneurs thinking about adopting the creative strategies and flexibility with truth that Astra employed. However, those lessons may not be the legacy Astra hoped to leave.

The European LEO Communications Constellation

In 2022, the European Commission continued pushing for funding a low Earth orbit (LEO) communications constellation, an EC desire since at least early 2021. At the time, I opined that the desire might be driven to keep the new Ariane 6 employed. However, based on the program management joke that is Europe’s Galileo constellation, it’s improbable the LEO constellation will be in place to deliver initial service in 2024 (an EC goal). 

The EC continued pushing this project despite the EC’s own Regulatory Scrutiny Board’s assessment that noted: “a lack of “analytical coherence” about why the proposed constellation is the best solution to the problems it is intended to address; use of a “predetermined technical solution” that isn’t specified and a lack of a timetable; and concerns about the validity of the data the commission used to back the proposed constellation. Each of those concerns is well-founded, with the Galileo program possibly demonstrating why the EC should thoroughly address the Scrutiny Board’s findings.

Instead, the EC is keen on remaining a font of generosity for the usual European companies and continues to press forward. The Europeans have now come up with a name for its constellation: IRIS^2 (Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity, and Security by Satellite). IRIS^2 will be getting ~$2.48 billion initially, but expect this constellation to blow past schedule and budget. It’s still unclear what Europeans will gain from a LEO communications constellation except perhaps to support European military expeditionary forces.

SpaceX’s Starship

Remember when Starship’s 2022 orbital launches were held up by the Federal Aviation Administration’s Environmental Assessment–until they weren’t? It’s been a year and a half since a Starship prototype flew (May 2021), which seems unusually slow for SpaceX. Since that last flight, anytime SpaceX tests Starship and its Super Heavy on the stand, the SpaceX nerderati get all hot and bothered. Despite their excitement, 2022 seems like it will close out with no Starship or booster having flown above the skies of Texas.

To be fair, there was at least one Starship engine test that failed spectacularly in July, which may have caused SpaceX to slow down Starship development. In addition, Musk’s latest hobby involving Twitter is concerning for those waiting for Starship to launch again. But Gwynne Shotwell, the level-headed company president and COO, reassured NASA’s current administrator that Musk’s Twitter fascination would not impact SpaceX.

Still, Starship as an orbital-capable rocket has yet to become a reality. But some civil agencies, such as NASA, hope it will…otherwise its plans for the Moon will go through adjustments. Moreover, SpaceX has yet to test a Starship/Super Heavy launch to orbit. And it won’t be just testing the rocket, but the landing infrastructure, too. 

SpaceX’s Falcon 9

Contrast the lack of Starship launches with the Falcon 9’s growing annual launches. The Falcon 9 has gained “prestige level” in the launch industry. On average, the rocket launched nearly five times per month in 2022 (including one Falcon Heavy). The rocket never failed during those launches, and its spacecraft deployment record in 2022 appears unimpeachable. It’s also used for human-spaceflight launches. Not only is it launching more often, but SpaceX’s Starlink launches are also using up as much of the Falcon 9’s mass capability as it safely can.

Nothing else comes close. It would be nice, fun, and interesting to see somebody try, though.

Russian Withdrawal from Global Space Market

I never anticipated Russia’s Ukrainian invasion resulting in that nation’s launch activities being withheld/boycotted. OneWeb was one of the first commercial companies to get a taste of what that meant, as the Russian government still holds the company’s satellites in storage somewhere. 

Too bad for that government, the withdrawal doesn’t appear to negatively impact the global space industry in any meaningful way. SpaceX has been ready and willing to take up the slack for those seeking launch services. Russian space launches since the withdrawal appear to be focused on national civil government and military missions, which probably were on the books years before the withdrawal. That nation’s launch services have conducted over 20 launches for the year, putting it in a third-place position. 

While the latest Russian space activity seems to be emulating China’s business model of “all China for all launches,” it’s unlikely that the country has China’s capacity, technology, and resources to keep up its space activities in its market. Based on the Ukraine conflict, whatever military space capability the Russian military uses doesn’t seem well-integrated and/or near as capable as all its military launches suggest. The Ukrainian invasion’s consequences on Russia’s military space industry launch vehicle and spacecraft planning and production efforts are probably already dire, despite a decent annual launch rate in 2022. 

Its entire space industry may be in a similar position, which should concern others about Russian ISS crew and cargo support services.

Project Kuiper Launch Contracts

Project Kuiper’s April 2022 announcement of three launch contracts with three launch companies–Arianespace, Blue Origin, and ULA–was heralded as the wellspring for the launch industry. At the time, the biggest problem I saw with that proposition was that none of the companies had the rockets to launch Kuipersat. 2022 ends, and they still don’t. But there is some hope: a Vulcan rocket may finally launch in early 2023–almost a full year after the Project Kuiper announcement.

But hope is a terrible basis for a business plan, and one planned rocket launch doesn’t indicate success. Two of Project Kuiper’s three contracts only work if Blue Origin can successfully mass-produce its BE-4 engine instead of shipping them onesie-twosie to ULA. Then it must produce more for itself so its New Glenn rocket can launch a few Kuipersats as well. Arianespace’s first Ariane 6 launch has been pushed further back to the last quarter of 2023. 

Project Kuiper tried to mitigate the risk of not being able to launch any Kuipersats by spreading the contracts among three companies. However, each company the Project Kuiper team chose didn’t and still doesn’t have a single operational rocket for fulfilling those contracts. That decision makes Project Kuiper’s management team look unserious at best and incompetent at worst. It may be that of the three chosen companies, only one–ULA–will likely launch Kuipersats sometime in 2023. If the others fail to produce their rockets for Project Kuiper’s use, and there’s no other option, then the company will need to consider using SpaceX for its satellite deployments.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard Failure

Blue Origin had this whole suborbital launch thing down until the failure in September. Thankfully, payloads, not people, were the only things at risk during the failed launch. At the time, I don’t believe anyone believed the failure investigation would be quick, and that belief seems to be validated as no New Shepard launches have occurred since September 2022. So it’s not clear how long the investigation will take.

It’s also not clear if Blue Origin is willing to build another New Shepard and engine for an activity it probably doesn’t get much profit from. The suborbital launch service industry is in this weird holding pattern. Theoretically, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have operational rockets for their customers. It’s just that we’d never be able to tell based on both companies’ inactivity. 

Despite what the companies’ leaders tell the public, the future of human suborbital rides as a business by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic seems to be less assured. 

That’s it for the activities I believe deserved revisiting. What activities do you think are worth mentioning?

The subsequent analysis will cover 2022 trends.

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