BLAST FROM THE PAST - Reusable Rocket Boosters Provide Project Payloads

8/23/2017

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Quite fittingly, the telephone area code for Central Florida’s Space Coast is 321 – an homage to the final three numbers in the countdown sequence for rocket launches. But, while the area code wasn’t assigned by the Florida Public Service Commission until 1999, the Sunshine State’s Atlantic Coast has been home to unmanned space launches even before astronaut Rear Adm. Alan Shepard took off in May 1961 from what is now known as Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. That launch station and adjoining Kennedy Space Center make up what is typically viewed as America’s Spaceport. But a third nearby facility, Canaveral Port Authority’s Port Canaveral, is increasingly coming into play as well, with the advent of reusable rocket boosters by the burgeoning commercial space industry. Indeed, Capt. John Murray, former president and CEO of ocean carrier company Hapag-Lloyd USA, and, since early 2016, CEO of Port Canaveral, sees the reusable boosters, each with an empty weight of early 100 tons, providing a substantial boost to project cargo activity at the seaport.
 
PORT EYES GROWTH

“Absolutely, it’s a growth area for us,” Murray said, referring to the commercial space industry and, specifically, reusable rocket boosters. “It’s become a component of our business model now. “It’s an exciting time to be here,” he said. “We are in a unique position here and are privileged to be part of this special time in our country’s history. We look at it as a growing business for us.” As competing commercial space industry players move to save tens of millions of dollars per launch by reusing first-stage units while advancing programs aimed at putting people on Mars, Murray anticipates that the towing to Port Canaveral docks of returning boosters will become increasingly commonplace. In late March and early April, the process achieved a milestone as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., typically referred to simply as SpaceX, became the first company to successfully launch and return a booster that previously had been shot into space and recovered. Just as a Lexus that’s been driven tens of thousands of miles is not called “used” but rather is termed “preowned,” such boosters are referred to by SpaceX officials as “flight-proven.”
 
MANY HAPPY RETURNS
 
While, according to Murray, the April transit marked the fifth time that SpaceX brought a landed booster into the port vertically positioned atop a specially fitted bargelike structure – an “autonomous spaceport drone ship” in SpaceX-speak – it was notably the first flight-proven one to be floated into Port Canaveral. A second such launch and return of a flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 booster to Port Canaveral took place in June, with several more on tap. Future SpaceX plans also call for launches of heavier rockets involving multiple reusable Falcon 9 boosters. Reuse of the aluminum boosters is critical to the SpaceX goal of lowering launch costs by 30 percent. And, with the first-stage units representing about 70 percent of the cost of record of a typical launch, the recover-recondition-reuse program is being aggressively pursued. Murray offered an analogy: “If you built a 747, you sold seats and you flew it to London and then disposed of it, that would be a mighty expensive seat. But, by reusing the plane ...” SpaceX, a Hawthorne, Californiabased venture launched in 2002 by Elon Musk, the multibillionaire founder of such ventures as PayPal and electric car leader Tesla Inc., has another reason for seeking to master the vertical landing of rockets. The atmospheric conditions of Mars preclude the building of a runway long enough to accommodate horizontal landings on the Red Planet. And putting people on Mars is a key to the lofty SpaceX objective of turning humanity into an interplanetary species. To date, SpaceX craft have been engaged in activities much closer to home, such as delivering commercial communications satellites into orbit and bringing U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration cargoes to the International Space Station.
 
A FIERY HICCUP
 
Though there were no casualties, SpaceX’s program encountered a fiery hiccup in September 2016 with the explosion of an unmanned rocket on a Cape Canaveral launchpad. But the company’s program now appears to be in full swing, with preparations under way for the carrying of astronauts to begin in 2018. An in-house team leads the transportation logistics efforts of SpaceX. In the case of the March-April activity, the 180-foot-tall booster that on March 30 launched a communications satellite and about 10 minutes later safely landed upright in the Atlantic Ocean on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You was floated April 4 into a Port Canaveral cargo terminal area leased by SpaceX from GT USA, the U.S. arm of global port operator Gulftainer. From there, the typical path for returned boosters includes lifting them by crane from drone ship to dock, transporting them by specialized flatbed truck to a hangar at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and then taking them by similar truck to a SpaceX facility in McGregor, Texas, for refurbishment. Booster dimensions are such that the units can fit under highway overpasses. SpaceX maintains two autonomous spaceport drone ships under lease from an unspecified barge company, with one based on the U.S. Atlantic Coast and a second on the U.S. Pacific Coast – the latter stationed to accommodate a lesser level of launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California.
 
SHORT ON DETAILS
 
When it comes to providing details about the move, both SpaceX and Gulftainer are remarkably hush-hush. SpaceX officials declined multiple interview requests, while Gulftainer retracted a press release on the March- April activity, as SpaceX alleged inaccuracies and violation of a nondisclosure agreement. Gulftainer also denied numerous requests for comment. SpaceX has two major competitors in the commercial space arena, and Murray said he believes all three companies could soon be bringing activity through Port Canaveral. Kent, Washington-based Blue Origin, begun in 2000 by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, hasn’t launched from the Space Coast yet, but it has leased a launch complex at Cape Canaveral and is building a massive manufacturing facility at nearby Exploration Park, with plans for 2019 commencement of a new launch program, likely to include return of boosters via Port Canaveral. The other key player yet to engage from the Space Coast is Centennial, Colorado-based United Launch Alliance, formed in 2006 as a 50-50 joint venture of Bethesda, Maryland-headquartered Lockheed Martin Corp. and Chicagobased Boeing Co. With the Space Coast and Port Canaveral at its nucleus and reusable boosters at its core, one need not be a rocket scientist to know that the countdown to more space-related project activity is on: 3-2-1... Return ... Refurbish ... Repeat. 
 
A professional journalist for nearly 50 years, U.S.-based Paul Scott Abbott has focused on transportation topics since the late 1980s.