Spaceflight Inc. is asking the U.S. government to permit the launch of U.S.-built commercial satellites on India’s PSLV rocket, saying U.S. alternatives are years away from meeting the demand and that foreign rockets’ all-in cost is no less than that of U.S. vehicles. The Spaceflight Sherpa smallsat carrier, above, has been waiting for a flight opportunity for two years. Credit: Spaceflight Inc.
PARIS — Spaceflight Industries on March 1 ended its speak-no-evil silence about U.S. policy prohibiting the use of India’s PSLV rocket, saying the U.S. domestic launch base is currently unable to handle the growing smallsat demand.
Entering a Washington political fray it had long disdained from its perch in Seattle, Spaceflight urged the new Trump administration “to allow these international launch options that are critical to the smallsat industry and to support the efforts and policies that expand — not restrict — access to space.”
The open letter to President Donald J. Trump, published in SatMagazine, was signed by Spaceflight Inc. President Curt Blake.
‘International’ means India
The letter gives itself diplomatic cover by lumping India’s PSLV alongside the Russian Soyuz and the Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr, which Spaceflight has also used. But the Soyuz rocket is less available today for smallsat missions and the Dnepr vehicle — as multiple customers including Iridium Communications have learned — has long been grounded by Russian military authorities and may never return to operation.
That leaves India’s PSLV, which has paid special attention to non-Indian small satellites to fill the rocket during launches of Indian Earth observation satellites and on several occasions has conducted missions with exclusively non-Indian payloads.
The most recent PSLV launch carried 104 satellites including 96 from Planet and Spire Global, both of San Francisco, which secured a waiver to the current U.S. ban on launches of commercial satellites from India.
It is not the first time that such a waiver has been granted, a fact that the U.S. Commercial Spaceflight Federation has lamented on behalf of the forever-nascent U.S. smallsat launch service sector:
Spaceflight has helped negotiate several of these launches, in addition to rideshares on the SpaceX Falcon 9 and the Orbital ATK Antares rockets during these vehicles’ missions to the International Space Station.
Spaceflight has further negotiated a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of the Spaceflight Sherpa tug, having lined up some 87 satellites to be deployed from the Sherpa — a launch scheduled for 2015 scheduled to carry Taiwan’s Formosat-5 spacecraft.
One Sherpa customer said the launch is now likely to be delayed to 2018.
Spaceflight subsequently purchased its own Falcon 9 in late 2015 for a second mission, this one entirely devoted to smallsat customers. It was to have occurred this year.
Cut-rate foreign launch rates? Not so, says Spaceflight
U.S. companies developing launch vehicles dedicated small satellites have said they need more time to build their businesses before confronting what they have said is non-market pricing by India, whose rocket is built and operated by the Indian government.
Blake tackles this issue head-on, saying the non-U.S. options — again, he doesn’t specify the PSLV, but it’s implicit as there is no ban on Russian or Ukrainian rockets — are no less expensive than their U.S. counterparts.
“Contrary to popular belief, foreign launches are not less expensive than domestic ones,” Blake says. “Additional regulations and monitoring fees for international launches add to the cost, [which] is already above U.S. pricing.”
Blake may have been comparing the cost to a smallsat owner of a rideshare launch aboard a SpaceX or Orbital ATK mission to the space station. On these flights, NASA is the principal customer.
The U.S. smallsat launchers, he says, are still struggling to begin operations, and “many years will pass before they are operational and sufficient to cover the needs of the U.S. market.
“[I]nsufficient capacity for launch will cost the demise of many promising domestic smallsat companies.”