By DAVID TORTORANO
Sometime next year at a site in south Mississippi, four RS-25 engines and the core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System will roar to life in a teeth-rattling spectacle during a static test at the historic B-2 test stand.
With a combined 2 million pounds of thrust, the engine core test at Stennis Space Center (SSC) will be loud, a testament to the power being held in place at the stand and the blast coming out of the trench. For old-timers, it will bring back memories of the Saturn V tests during the Apollo era.
But the event also will underscore the importance of the I-10 region’s space-related activities. The RS-25 engines all were tested at SSC, and the core stage was built at Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF), some 40 miles to the southwest.
As impressive as it will be, the test is just one event in dynamic new 21st century space age, where government and commercial players are all vying for a piece of the action. And there’s plenty of that, from launch services to satellite production, and from space tourism to building space habitats.
For established space companies there’s money to be made, and for start-ups there are opportunities to find a niche activity that could be the start of something big.
Goldman Sachs, in its Profiles in Innovation series, recently highlighted the state of the industry, calling space the “next investment frontier.”
“Rocket launches are being privatized, the most ambitious satellite constellation ever is being deployed, man is looking back at the Moon and Mars, and militaries are vying for the ultimate high ground,” the report said, adding, “technological advances and necessity are creating a wave of opportunity as business and governments invest in a new Space Economy.”
What is clear to anyone following the space industry is that it’s in a state of transition with more players worldwide coming aboard. The industry operates at the cutting edge and requires a highly skilled, highly trained work force to build, launch, and utilize space assets. It’s a field any region would love to have.
And this region has a huge foot in the door.
The Gulf Coast is in the exclusive club of locations with NASA centers. SSC is where NASA has tested large rocket engines since the 1960s, and MAF in New Orleans is where huge aerostructures have been built just as long.
Both SSC and MAF have roles in the current NASA deep-space program, the Space Launch System (SLS), designed to send astronauts farther into space than ever before. SSC is where the SLS launch vehicle engines, the RS-25, and the currently mothballed J-2X are tested. MAF is where the four-engine launch vehicle core stages are being built. It’s also where the Orion crew capsule is assembled.
In addition, both facilities are involved in commercial space ventures, a field that was supercharged during the Obama administration and the push to have private companies take over low-orbit resupply missions. SSC tests three types of commercial rocket engines, and MAF is where the composite structure for a winged commercial space vehicle is built.
Having a stake in both the federal and commercial sides of the multibillion-dollar space enterprise bodes well for the region. While NASA’s programs rely on funding provided by Congress, the commercial field is more open-ended and can venture into activities that are not necessarily on NASA’s agenda. It can include everything from traditional satellite launches to the still-developing space tourism industry. On top of all that, both SSC and MAF are actively courting commercial ventures to take advantage of under-utilized NASA facilities.
“Considering the advancements in commercial efforts in space travel and space-related services, NASA Stennis Space Center has capacity to support those efforts – such as the rocket engine test stands and engine component test facilities,” said Robbie Ingram, executive director of the Mississippi Enterprise for Technology, the incubator and technology transfer office at SSC.
“Mechanisms exist to allow commercial space enterprises access to that same infrastructure so these type facilities do not have to be replicated,” he said.
NASA and the South
The South’s love of space flight goes back to the early ‘60s, when President Kennedy issued a challenge to beat the Soviets and get a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s. Newly established NASA launched a program to establish manufacturing, test and launch facilities needed to get there, and the South was the big winner.1
It became the home at key NASA facilities because of the availability of large tracts of land and interconnected waterways needed to transport large space vehicles. Longer periods of fair weather flying, the same thing that attracted the military, also played a role. In addition, powerful, senior Southern politicians recognized the economic benefit the space program would bring.2
Huntsville, Ala., Houston; Cape Canaveral, Fla., Bay St. Louis, Miss., and New Orleans formed the “Space Crescent” in the South. In “Way Station to Space,” Mack R. Herring cited a story in the July 20, 1964 issue of U.S. News & World Report that described the space program as a new industry in the South worth “billions.” Money for facilities was being spent at the rate of “one-million dollars every two hours.”
That the South benefited when NASA dominated the space program is clear. What is less certain is how well the South will do in an age when private players may eventually dominate space. Some areas are already taking steps to ensure they get a piece of the growing field, including establishing spaceports.
In Hancock County, Miss., home of SSC, the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission found in a recent study that it has the work force to focus on aerospace parts and products manufacturing and navigation and instrumentation manufacturing.
The space industry
In its assessment of the state of the industrial base, the Pentagon in 2012 reported to Congress that the overall health of the U.S. space industrial sector remains sound, but is at risk due in part to an increase in foreign competition.
Indeed, the U.S. military now sees it as a possible area of contention. In a strategic shift, the Air Force is no longer treating space as a benign domain used to monitor, sense and report, but instead as a warfighting domain where it would fight, should war start or extend into space.3
“It’s obvious, but it’s probably worth repeating, that the U.S. is heavily dependent on space, and (our adversaries) know it is a vulnerability,” said Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson during a May 17, 2017 Senate subcommittee hearing. “In any conflict, space will be contested – and we haven’t always assumed that in the past. There’s been a change in culture – a change in planning and training going on in the United States military because we cannot take space dominance for granted.” 4
More than 80 percent of the Defense Department’s space actions are handled by the Air Force, and the service views space as one of its core missions.
“We have to acquire at a pace that allows us to be faster than our adversaries who are all investing in ways to take away our advantage,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein during the Senate subcommittee hearing.5
There’s already a lot of money involved in the field. In 2015, the global space economy totaled $323 billion, according to The Space Foundation’s The Space Report 2016. That’s down from $329 billion in 2014, due in part to the strengthening dollar, meaning that non-U.S. government budgets and industry revenues appeared smaller even though most experienced growth in their own currencies.
With a total of $246 billion, commercial space activities made up 76 percent of the global space economy. The U.S. government spent $45 billion on defense and non-defense space efforts in 2015, a 3 percent increase from 2014. Non-U.S. government space investment declined by 14 percent in dollar terms, primarily due to exchange rates, to a total of $32 billion in 2015. In reality, most countries increased their budgets for space activities, according to the report.
The 2016 State of the Satellite Industry Report by the Satellite Industry Association said satellite services revenues increased by four percent globally from 2014 to 2015, reaching $127.4 billion, powered by continued growth in consumer satellite television, satellite broadband and Earth observation services. In addition, satellite manufacturing revenues, reflecting the value of satellites launched in 2015, grew by four percent worldwide to $16.6 billion. There were orders for 17 commercial GEO satellites with 11 orders won by U.S. manufacturers for a domestic market share of 65 percent, up from 57 percent in 2014.
The U.S. has the biggest budget for space exploration, spending over six times more than China, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development figures for 2013. From the first moon landing to the International Space Station, the U.S. government agency NASA has been leading space exploration since its creation in 1958.
According to the Futron Space Competitive Index of 2014, the United States remains the leader in space competitiveness, but is the only nation to decline for seven straight years. As other countries enhance their space capabilities while the U.S. undergoes uncertain transitions, it should not view its unique space agenda-setting power as guaranteed, the report said.
The space race today involves private companies and regions that hope to get a piece of the multibillion-dollar action. And a lot of new players are entering the lucrative field. According to the Goldman Sachs report, $13.3 billion is the total investment in space start-ups since 2000, heavily weighted toward the past 10 years.
The Aerospace Industries Association estimated in 2013 that space was a $45.6 billion enterprise within the then-$223.55 billion aerospace industry. The missile product group accounts for another $21.84 billion in sales during that year.
The Federal Aviation Administration said 21 percent of orbital launch attempts in 2011 were commercial, earning revenue of $1.9 billion.
According to the FAA’s Annual Compendium of Commercial Space Transportation 2016, the size of the global space industry, which combines satellite services (GNSS) and ground equipment, government space budgets, and global navigation satellite services equipment, is estimated to be about $324 billion.
At $95 billion in revenues, or about 29 percent, satellite television represents the largest segment of activity. Following this is government space budgets at $76 billion, or 24 percent, and services enabled by GNSS represent, about $76 billion in revenues.
Commercial satellite remote sensing companies generated $1.6 billion in revenues, but the value added services enabled by these companies is believed to be magnitudes larger. Because remote sensing value added services includes imagery and data analytics from other sources beyond space-based platforms, only the satellite remote sensing component is included in the global space industry total.
Global launch services is estimated to account for $6 billion of the $324 billion total.
In 2015, there were a total of 86 orbital launches conducted by service providers in seven countries. Since 2014, U.S. providers have begun to cut into the existing share of commercial launches occupied by Russian providers due to a variety of factors, including the entry of SpaceX into the field and the launch failures that have plagued the Russian space industry. In the meantime, Europe’s Arianespace remains a steadfast provider, according to the FAA.
Commercial interests have, of course, been involved in the federal space program from day one. NASA needed the companies to develop systems, and in many cases those companies established operations close to NASA centers to be near the customer. That’s one reason NASA centers are economic engines.
But in the new age, NASA might wind up being simply one customer. Space flight companies are cropping up nationwide, including Washington and Colorado. Still, the South has some of the most unique capabilities in the world that can be a lure for the new breed. SSC, for instance, is the most capable of NASA’s sites where rocket engines are tested, the last place in the country where NASA can test full-scale engines or whole rocket stages 24/7.
The industry, whether a huge aerospace company that’s worked in the field for years or one of the startups backed by the deep pockets of billionaires, still needs the same things NASA has built up over 60 years. For some companies it makes sense to tap into what’s already available through NASA.
Finding new uses
It was big news when a NASA facility at Kennedy Space Center that faced an uncertain future with the end of the Space Shuttle program got a new lease on life when Boeing decided to use it to build the company’s CST-100. Space Florida, an aerospace economic development agency, took over the Space Shuttle Main Engine Processing Facility and Processing Control Center and is leasing it to Boeing to build its Crew Space Transportation spacecraft.
A writer in a Time magazine story likened the lease to an aristocrat selling off parts of the family estate. But Florida officials saw it as a chance to attract the commercial space flight industry.
Both SSC and MAF have excess capacity that can be offered to private companies. And with space flight costs so high, that could provide a savings hard to pass up. In addition to idle facilities, SSC and MAF both have thousands of acres available for development.
Patrick Scheuermann, former director of Stennis Space Center, once pointed out that there are a lot of companies with great ideas that are in the laboratory or subscale version. Success with those smaller versions will force them to make an investment in their own back yard or search for a location to test the larger scale.
“Rather than them duplicating infrastructure somewhere or putting their capital dollars somewhere, they’re basically using resources that the taxpayers already paid for once,” Scheuermann said in 2011 when still at SSC.
SSC has been looking for a company interested in partnering with NASA or leasing the E-4 site originally designed to test propulsion systems for a now-defunct program. E-4 has concrete-walled test cells and hard stand, a high-bay work area with a bridge crane and adjacent work area, control room space and personnel offices, as well as road and barge canal access.
Work on E-4 was never finished, but NASA says it could be expanded to include Ram Air test capability to support the testing of power packs and engine systems up to 500,000 pound-force thrust. Priority will be given to users that support space exploration for the government or those involved in commercial space.
While it may be uncomfortable seeing parts of the family estate being “sold,” it’s far better having them used by commercial companies than sitting around collecting dust.
Southern politicians realized long ago that the nation’s space activities would be crucial to developing the South. And that has proven to be true. According to The Space Report 2016, the global space industry appears to be going through a period of “reinvention.”
“Efforts to reuse launch vehicles are beginning to bear fruit, and more efficient launch vehicles are being designed and developed, all of which may help to bring launch costs down. The satellite industry is seeing rapid growth in the number of small satellites, as vast constellations consisting of hundreds of satellites for Earth observation and telecommunications are being ordered and built. Large satellites are taking advantage of more efficient propulsion systems that may help increase their usable lifespan. These are but a few examples of how the industry is making space more affordable and consequently more accessible to a broad swath of public agencies, industries, and individuals.”
If that’s not a field with growth potential, it’s hard to know what is.
1 Mack R. Herring, “Way Station to Space,” Chapter 1, Decision for Mississippi, citing Loyd Swenson Jr., “The Fertile Crescent: The South’s Role in the National Space Program,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 71 (January 1968), pp. 382-87; Edward R. Ling Sr., “The Space Crescent: The Untold Story,” (Huntsville, Ala.; The Strode Publishers, 1984), p. 24.
2 Herring, citing Swenson, p. 388
3 “Senior leaders discuss US space posture,” AFNS report in Space War, May 19, 2017
» EDITOR’S NOTE: Reprinted through a collaboration from the recently released Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor.