NASA Returns to the Moon

The first mission of NASA’s Artemis program, CAPSTONE, is on its way to the moon. The mission of the microwave-sized probe is to test the peculiar elliptical orbit around the moon that is planned for the Lunar Gateway, a facility that has come under some criticism.

It will also test deep-space navigation technology, using the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that has been in service since 2009. However, CAPSTONE’s real importance is the launch company that sent it on its way.

CAPSTONE, which is short for Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, was launched by a company called Rocket Lab from a facility located in New Zealand. Rocket Lab has launched a number of small satellites into Earth orbit on its two stage Electron rocket.

CAPSTONE is the company’s first deep-space mission. It may be the first of many. For instance, Rocket Lab is planning to launch a private probe to Venus in 2023.

According to an analysis published by NBC News, Rocket Lab proposes to be a competitor to SpaceX. It’s not there yet. A satellite launched on an Electron costs about $10,000 per pound as opposed to about $1,200 per pound on a SpaceX Falcon 9. Unlike Falcon 9, Electron is not reusable, although Rocket Lab is experimenting with catching the first stage midair with a helicopter to return it intact for reuse. The rocket is powered by 3D-printed Rutherford engines.

However, according to a recent presentation, Rocket Lab already has a new rocket, the Neutron, in development. The company describes it as a “rocket for 2050 – built today.” It incorporates some impressive technology that should make it far cheaper to operate than anything flying today. These technologies include:

  • Carbon composite materials that are stronger and lighter and, using a new process called “automatic fiber placement” cheaper to manufacture than anything currently in use for rockets
  • Retractable fairings, the part of the rocket that protects the payload during launch, which remain attached but open and close as needed
  • Archimedes rocket engines that can be reused over and over again with a minimum of refurbishment and repair
  • The ability to land the first stage back at the launch site, without using a drone barge at sea

The Neutron will be designed to launch constellations of small satellites, similar to the SpaceX Starlink. It can also be used to launch heavier satellites to geostationary orbit, planetary probes to deep space and even crewed spacecraft.

Clearly, Rocket Lab is gunning for SpaceX with an urgency and an eye for innovation that thus far commercial space rival Blue Origin, whose New Glenn is still in development, has not been able to accomplish.

Neutron, however, is not scheduled to fly earlier that 2024. SpaceX is still developing the Starship, the absolute beast of a rocket that is designed to deliver 100 metric tons anywhere in the solar system, using in-space refueling. Even so, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had best look to his laurels.

So far, SpaceX has dominated the space launch industry. It has lowered the cost of launching payloads into space by orders of magnitude. The company is taking cargo and crew to and from the International Space Station. The first Americans back to the moon will ride to the lunar surface on board a SpaceX rocket. Musk’s dreams of settling Mars seem within the realm of possibility.

The rise of Rocket Lab, as exemplified by the launch of CAPSTONE to the moon, suggests that the SpaceX dominance may be coming to an end. In the over-all scheme of things, this new competition is a good thing. Competition in the launch business will mean even lower costs and expanded capabilities as humankind begins to realize the immense opportunities that space offers.

The rise of Rocket Lab also represents a warning for other launch companies, including legacy firms such as United Launch Alliance and would-be upstarts such as Blue Origin. Talking about or playing at innovation will not cut it anymore. To quote a line from “Star Wars,” “Do or do not. There is no try.”

The histories of other industries are littered with the wreckage of once proud companies that lost the innovation race. It looks like Rocket Lab does not propose to be one of those when the history of the commercial launch industry is written.

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