OneWeb Update, Scrubbed U.S Launches, What is Reliability?

OneWeb Update, Scrubbed U.S Launches, What is Reliability?

While I provided an analysis of the latest OneWeb activities last week, the company appeared in another story last Friday. The federal bankruptcy court approved plans and permitted Bharti Global and the United Kingdom’s government to buy OneWeb.

There appear to be other regulatory hoops for OneWeb to jump through before the sale is final. However, those hoops are probably small when compared with OneWeb’s previous challenges.  At this point, it appears safe to assume the company will be moving ahead in deploying satellites and running a LEO broadband constellation--with the UK taxpayer’s and Bharti’s backing. As I noted at the end of that analysis:

OneWeb, then, will provide a LEO broadband service globally. It won't be the first to the LEO broadband market. It might not be the best or the fastest provider. But it has government support and, potentially, funding from UK taxpayers. If it manages to deploy its initial 648 by 2022’s end, it will be well ahead of its forerunners from decades ago, such as Teledesic. Whether a commercial market will blossom from its labors (an “If you build it, they will come” scenario), that’s yet to be determined.

OneWeb is well ahead of the LEO broadband forerunners from the 90s. But, well behind SpaceX.

Scrubbed Series=Growing Pains?

A series of events didn’t occur last week, reminding those of us monitoring their lack of happening that the U.S. space industry is still in its infancy.

What didn’t happen were U.S. launches. Last week was supposed to be full of flame and thunder as four rockets from three launch service providers launched. The launch “scrubs” (stopping a launch during the last minutes/seconds of a countdown) occurred not because of any one problem, but because rockets, and the circumstances required to launch them, are...touchy.

SpaceX was supposed to conduct two of the launches, one for Starlink satellites and the other deploying a GPS satellite. Including the scrub this Monday morning, SpaceX has scrubbed four launches during the past week. ULA pushed back the launch of an NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) satellite that initially went through a launch scrub on August 27, 2020. In the last week alone, ULA had to scrub the launch of that NRO satellite three times--let down by anomalous sensor readings or faulty ground equipment.

The one U.S. launch service provider that did manage to launch a rocket (also after scrub) was Northrop Grumman. For NG to achieve launch while the other two companies haven’t is unexpected. Of the three launch service providers, Northrop Grumman hasn’t launched the Antares rocket as often as SpaceX has with the Falcon 9, or ULA with its rockets.

This chain of events brings me to one word--reliability. It means something different to space industry participants than it does to Consumer Reports, and, more recently, Wirecutter. Focusing on Consumer Reports--the organization is known for its data-gathering and number crunching, writing up fairly balanced reviews of certain products. In the case of cars, Consumer Reports reviews have become synonymous with one symbol--the full red dot.

That dot encapsulates a car’s history regarding drivetrains, brakes, engines, electrical components, car safety, fuel economy, etc. It immediately lets a reader know whether the vehicle they are looking at will be reliable, or...something else--the dreaded full black dot (that’s bad!). Ultimately, reliability in the eyes of Consumer Reports and its readers consists of more than whether a car’s engine will blow up.

Bringing Red to the Rockets

Before going on, do you know there are engineers--people who work within the principles of space science and technology to build useful things--who believe that wearing a red shirt during a launch is bad luck?

I don’t get it either. That’s only a worry for Star Trek characters. On to thoughts about reliability.

I admit I have been a part of this problem--rockets, some of the most complex machines on the planet, are being given short shrift when it comes to scoring their reliability. Some research organizations currently use an elementary standard for rating a launch service provider’s rocket reliability: how often has it not blown up during the past ## of years? Yup--it’s that basic. But this recent spate of launch scrubs shows that maybe more needs to be considered to define rocket reliability.

The space industry definition of that word should be expanded when considering reliability is a highlighted consideration, a requirement, in the United States Air Force’s/Space Force’s decisions to pay an extravagant premium to certain companies for launch services. The USAF/SF pays attention to other criteria for reliability--ultimately adding up to less probability a rocket will blow up (remember the risk assessment matrix?). Perhaps, though, not blowing a rocket up should be the only very essential criteria for determining reliability. Launching on time, for example, might be considered a vital reliability characteristic for some customers. Knowing how often a company conducts an on-time launch would go into a launch service provider’s overall “reliability rating.”

This, and other examples of criteria for reliability rating:

  • The launch service provider launches on schedule (with no updates) ##% of the time.
  • Launch costs (hah!)
  • Upper stage performance.
  • Orbital insertion performance.
  • The rocket’s engine(s) is/are ##% reliable.
  • Crew safety record while getting a rocket ready.
  • How safe are the fuels? How much is needed on site for a launch?
  • So, so, much more…

Crazy thinking? Not really. There are engineers out there who know these systems. They have lists of their own going into particular parts of these rockets. These lists exist because the engineers are already supporting their company in assuring customers like the U.S. government that a launch will work. And the beauty is, even if a company is exceptionally non-communicative about its reliability factors, rockets, like cars, can still be objectively looked at with common standards and rated.

Like in many other parts of the space industry, there’s an incomplete feedback loop. In this case, the loop to help inform potential customers about which type of rocket to use based on objective reliability criteria. It could be that there are too few rockets manufactured to make this useful. The cars Consumer Reports rates are manufactured in the millions and meant for millions of U.S. customers.

The rocket industry is not close to that scale, in part because there are too few consumers for this product and service. Other reasons--non-reusability makes it challenging to gauge specific characteristics (that’s changing, though). If the launch services industry wants to grow, it needs to become not just more available to its customers, but also more easily understood by its customers. Reliability rating, which would include whether a rocket launches on schedule, will be one benefit to customers--whether those launch service providers want it or not.