CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – While SpaceX and United Launch Alliance have been sending rockets up at an increased pace the past several years, the Space Coast is about to get much busier with more commercial rocket companies set to join the launch party.
The first half of 2022 is slated to see two companies launch for the first time from Cape Canaveral from two older launch complexes while some massive new rockets are waiting on new engines in the hopes of lifting off before the end of the year.
For one company, Relativity Space based in Long Beach, California, its first planned launch from Space Launch Complex 16, will be its first liftoff ever. Its rockets are fabricated using 3D printing technology and are projected to take as little as 30 days to create, from the nose cone to the engine. Its first rocket is called Terran 1 while a much larger reusable version is in the works called Terran R.
While its first launch will be a test mission to make sure the craft can make it into orbit, Relativity has lined up eight customers including the U.S. Department of Defense and NASA, which awarded the company $3 million as part of its Venture Class Launch Services Demonstration 2 contract.
“NASA’s efforts to expand launch options are vital for the future growth of space access,” said company CEO and cofounder Tim Ellis. “We appreciate NASA’s selection of our 3D printing approach for our launch vehicle, Terran 1.”
All of Relativity’s initial launches will be from SLC-16, which has not had a launch since 1988 but was used for Titan and Pershing missiles as well as test for the Apollo and Gemini programs. While work continues on that initial rocket in California, construction at SLC-16 is getting close as well, company officials said.
“The Relativity team has been busy to stay on track for launch in 2022,” said Relativity’s Launch Operations Program Manager Joy Mosdell, who said so far in 2021, the company has completed the installation of the propellant farms for liquified natural gas and oxygen and constructed the launch vehicle integration hangar among other benchmarks while licensing continues with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Astra isn’t new to liftoffs
It may get beaten to the punch, though, by another commercial rocket company Astra, which recently secured launch rights from Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 46 through the efforts of Space Florida, the state’s aerospace economic development agency.
Astra, based in Alameda, California, has already reached orbit with a rocket that took off from Alaska, and will now launch as early as January to satisfy the same demonstration contract for NASA that Relativity has in the works. Astra’s “Rocket 3″ is small in relation to others in the market, standing only 38 feet tall and with a payload capacity of 331 pounds.
Relativity’s Terran 1 in comparison will stand at 80 feet tall with a payload capacity of more than 2,750 pounds. The Astra business plan is to provide a much lower cost to customers to reach orbit. To that end, it has lined up several customers including three more launches for NASA to put small satellites into orbit to track hurricanes, although the company has yet to say from which spaceport those missions will launch.
The two new small- to mid-size rocket companies will join a big lineup of launches planned from both SpaceX and ULA from existing launch pads at Canaveral while SpaceX will continue its missions from Kennedy Space Center as well.
In 2021, SpaceX had a record 16 launches of its Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex 40, as well as another record 12 at KSC, and it plans to keep up that pace in 2022. ULA had three launches in 2021 from Canaveral Space Launch Complex 41 with four on tap from Canaveral in the first half of 2022.
Those will continue to be on Atlas rockets, but ULA is waiting to move forward with its new Vulcan Centaur rocket. Progress on Vulcan, though, means waiting on another company looking to leave a big footprint on the Space Coast - Blue Origin.
Both Blue Origin’s massive New Glenn rocket and ULA’s Vulcan will use BE-4 engines fabricated by Blue Origin, but there have been some delays.
“We’ve made critical progress this year on BE-4 engines,” the company wrote in an emailed statement. “The program continues to move along with engine qualification starting end of year.”
That qualification run, though, means ULA, which was to have had the engines in hand by this month will now likely not get them until April.
“We are disappointed that we will not be receiving Vulcan flight engines from Blue Origin by the end of the year, but they will be arriving early next year,” the company said in a statement. “The certification program is moving along very well and the production engines are being manufactured. We look forward to Vulcan’s first launch in 2022.”
Vulcan will be the next generation for ULA, which still flies Atlas and Delta IV rockets. It will stand 202 feet tall with a nearly 18-foot diameter fairing that can carry nearly 58,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit.
For New Glenn, also targeting liftoff in 2022, the company has completed work at Space Launch Complex-36, so now it awaits the 313-foot-tall completed rocket with its 50,000-pound payload capacity. Qualifications for the rocket’s fairing, the largest in the industry at 23 feet in diameter, are under way while the company continues to manufacture flight hardware while further testing rocket components at its factory in Merritt Island and onsite in Cape Canaveral.
“All of these milestones are helping us achieve our launch target in partnership with our commercial customers. We will fly when we’re ready, and we’re driving to launch as soon as possible,” the company stated.
Both Blue Origin and ULA have agreed to engine modifications, though, which have pushed original plans to get both rockets up and running in early 2022 now likely to late in the year.
“A variety of factors have driven the delay, including COVID impacts, supply chain issues, development testing, and a few key production processes that have proven more challenging to arrive at the final flight designs and processes,” according to the company statement.
Delays aside, 2022 could see five companies performing regular launches from Cape Canaveral with many more from Kennedy.
Space Force Brigadier Gen. Stephen Purdy, commander of Space Launch Delta 45, previously known as the 45th Space Wing when it was part of the Air Force, and director of the Eastern Range said the increase in operations has required a shift in mindset.
“This year, the focus has largely been to change the thinking and nature of the base – to use launch requests and approvals as indicators of demand for the unique and specialized services Space Launch Delta 45 provides its partners,” Purdy said. “The Eastern Range received 225 requests to launch from the Cape in the past 365 days. We prepared to launch 172 times and entered countdown for 41 of those, with 36 successful launches.”
Those 36 liftoffs could climb significantly in 2022 and, eventually, rocket launches could happen daily or beyond.
“As we welcome more commercial providers to Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, we’re ready to support the increased launch cadence, offering each mission access to customized range services, toward the ultimate goal of multiple launches a day,” Purdy said.