Spacelift Washington: International Space Transportation Association Faltering; The myth of $10,000 per pound

By frank_sietzen
March 18, 2001
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Spacelift Washington

Spacelift Washingon Archive

WASHINGTON – Boeing and Lockheed Martin have declined again to join a proposed international space launch trade group, this column has learned. And without at least one of the major U.S. space launch firms as members, the proposed organization, the International Space Transportation Association, will be unable to get underway. The decision effectively ends any chance of establishment of the ISTA in the near term, according to Doug Heydon, former President of Arianespace Inc. and original supporter of the concept of a global trade association for space launch service providers.

Why an ‘ISTA’?

The idea of an international organization that would serve as a communications tool among all launch companies was formed in 1997 at that year’s Paris Air Show. With commercial launch contracts growing, and the number of launch service providers proliferating across borders, some form of organized way of sharing common concerns and addressing issues seemed appropriate. The same form was taken when commercial, civil aviation became a mature transportation industry. In fact, Heydon took the Civil Air Transport Association as his structural model when forming up the first vestiges of the ISTA concept. The ISTA would allow commercial space transportation firms to share non-competitive data and address such issues as uniform range safety standards, personnel and schedule matters, and use of standardized payload accommodations. The latter, Heydon believed, would serve to help all customers of launch vehicles when the inevitable delays caused payloads to move from one launcher to another. Such flexibility would ultimately benefit the launch firms, too, since helping a customer find another ride when the host company’s booster was delayed would further strengthen customer loyalty, not weaken the bonds. Customers would likely be more inclined to remember being left on the pad to find another ride for itself, or so the theory went.

ISTA would also serve as a platform to educate the public in the merits and value of a strong global space launch market.

Whatever the final form of ISTA, it was believed that the establishment and successful operation of such an industry group would mark a major turning point in the evolution and maturity of commercial launch. Following the Paris discussions, the ISTA idea moved to Boeing’s Huntington, Beach California offices where the U.S. firm played host to the gathering, which included nearly all existing commercial space launch operators. At that October, 1997 meeting a pair of structures for ISTA were agreed upon, and plans were developed to have each firm make its choice as to which form of ISTA it could support. Both proposed forms, Heydon has written, were membership-based organizations with a world headquarters in Washington, DC

Political Fallout hits industry

But before the idea would advance any further, the whole idea was derailed.


Politics-U.S. style.

The following spring the U.S. House of Representatives opened hearings on alleged illegal technology transfer of space launch vehicle technology to China, leaking from U.S. firms. Loral and Hughes were accused of the technology transfer charge during heated congressional hearings (both firms strongly denied the charge). A subsequent May 1999 report, headed by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-CA.) further detailed the idea that sensitive space technology had moved from the commercial launch world to Communist China. In the uproar that followed, Congress voted to move licensing authority for commercial satellites from the Commerce Department to the State Department-and tightened restrictions allowing U.S. made satellites, satellite components, and related gear and information from launch on foreign providers-and the sharing of data between U.S. commercial space companies and partners in other countries.

Not exactly the climate for establishment of an international space launch association.
With the political heat rising, Boeing and Lockheed withdrew from participation in the ISTA talks. Without the U.S.firms –or at least one major U.S. launch firm – as members, the idea was moot.
Two things have occurred in the years since that gave Heydon and others who support the ISTA concept reason for optimism.

First, the effects of the increased satellite export restrictions have devastated the U.S. commercial space industry. Data compiled by such organizations as the Aerospace Industries Association and the Satellite Industry Association indicated U.S. export sales of satellites and related components have fallen by 45 percent. As a result, several bills are now pending in the House- with Republican support –to restore the satellite export regime as it existed in May 1999, and returning authority back to the Commerce Department. Other suggested reforms may remove space satellites from the munitions list entirely in an administrative series of reforms in addition to legislative changes.

And secondly, the 2000 political campaign has passed into history. The political climate in Washington seemed ready for a change, with greater cooperation between the U.S. and other nations a by-product of the clearing air.

But, apparently, not yet.

Both Boeing and Lockheed have again declined to participate in ISTA, at least for the moment.
But there is nothing so certain in Washington as change. Thus it may yet be possible to bridge the gap between U.S. and foreign launch service providers and find a common way to enhance and protect the launch industry without tipping competitive advantage or with international geopolitics getting in the way. If not, it will be a statement that perhaps space launch isn’t mature enough and strong enough a sector to grow along the lines of commercial aviation.

Stay tuned. We haven’t heard the last of this, as the space transportation industry evolves.


No matter who is the service provider, space launch costs are staggeringly high. Driving down the cost of launch has been the subject of a host of studies and government panels, and the buzzwords of many a corporate business presentation to meetings and seminars. It was the idea behind the X-33, X-34, and the Space Launch Initiative (SLI). It drove the Air Force from heavy-lift reliance upon the Titan IV to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle. And so far it has eluded every effort (the Delta IV and Atlas V may mark major progress in reducing launch costs for cargoes, but both vehicles have yet to fly and the Delta IV has been delayed until May, 2002).

But new data published as an appendix to a military space study done by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments suggest that, while expendable launch costs are indeed high, they don’t fall in the $10,000/lb + range-at least not to low orbit (GTO, well that’s another case as we shall see).
In the study entitled The Military Use of Space: A Diagnostic Assessment analyst Barry D. Watts reviews a host of technological areas needed for the U.S. national security space interests. He quotes data compiled by Greg Lucas and Charles Murphy in Appendix 4 of the study (contact the center at csbaonline.org or 202-331-7990 to get a copy). Here are the data as published, broken down by 16 LEO-capable launch vehicles and 10 GTO boosters, in ascending lift capability order:


(As published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments)

Proton 44,200 $75-$95 M $1697/$2149
Ariane 5 39,600 $150-180 M $3788/$4545
Sea Launch 35,000 $75-$95 M $2143/$2714
Zenit 2 30,000 $35-$50 M $1167/$1667
LM-3B 29,900 $50-$70 M $1672/$2341
Ariane 4 21,000 $100-$125 M $4762/$5952
Atlas 2 19,050 $90-$105 M $4724/$5512
Delta 3 18,280 $75-$90 M $4103/$4923
Soyuz 5,400 $35-$40 M $2273/$2597
Delta 2 11,220 $45-$55 M $4011/$4902
LM-2C 7,040 $20-$25 M $2841/$3551
Athena 04,350 $22-$26 M $5057/$5977
Rockot 04,100 $12-$15 M $2927/$3659
Taurus 03,100 $18-$20 M $5806/$6452
Pegasus 03,300 $12-$15 M $3636/$4545
START 01,543 $5-$10 M $3240/$6481
Average Cost-per-LB to LEO: $3632-$4587

Proton 10,150 $7389/$9360
Ariane 5 15,000 $10,000/$12,000
Sea Launch 11,050 $6787/$8597
Ariane 4 10,900 $9174/$11,468
LM-3B 09,900 $5051/$7071
Delta 3 08,400 $8929/$10,714
Atlas 2 08,200 $10,976/$12,805
Delta 2 04,060 $11,084/$13,547
LM-2C 02,200 $9091/$11,364
Taurus 01,290 $13,953/$15,504

Average Cost-per-LB to GTO: $9,243/$11,243

In that part of the study concerning space launch, Watts sounded a pessimistic note about prospects for major cost reductions via ELV in the short term. We’ll have more details from his study in future columns. And as far as those $10,000/lb to LEO and higher launch costs? Think Space Shuttle-and human launch services. Sounds high, does it? Well, what else would you expect from a monopoly?

SPACELIFT WASHINGTON © 2001 by Aerospace FYI Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction allowed with permission. The information contained herein are the authors own and are not affiliated with any other society, organization, or institution. Publication does not constitute endorsement of either editorial content or sponsoring web site.
Have information about space transportation? Email the editor at sietzen@erols.com