In-space Propulsion Investments are all About the Return on Investment Written 27 July 2015

Panelists: Moderator Mitchell Walker, Georgia Institute of Technology; Jonny Dyer, Skybox Imaging; Mark Lewis, Science and Technology Policy Institute, Institute of Defense Analyses; Peter Lord, Space Systems Loral; Roger Myers, Aerojet Rocketdyne; Jeff Sheehy, NASA

By Duane Hyland, AIAA Communications (2008-2017)

Panelists discuss "Government Investments Enabling Advancement of In-Space Propulsion," July 27, at the 2015 AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum.

“Competition in the global space-propulsion market continues to increase as industry continues to invest in technology and strategy and as agencies use tech programs to push the boundaries,” said Mitchell Walker, associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, during a full 2015 AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum 360 Panel titled “Government Investments Enabling Advancement of In-Space Propulsion.”

Mitchell told the crowd that it is very important to “align requirements to support the critical infusion of government funding technology in space propulsion and emerging markets.” Roger Myers, executive director of advanced in-space programs with Aerojet Rocketdyne, explained that although early investments in space-propulsion systems bolstered the national defense and space-exploration programs, the landscape is changing. Myers said that more “public-private partnerships are coming on line.”

Myers also laid out some real barriers to advances in propulsion technology, chief among them being the “need for the investment to exceed the cost plus the risk factor inherent in the technology.” If it can’t do that, he said, the system will most likely be rejected. Myers explained that time-tested technology holds the edge for approvals and that uncertainty about a system trumps all potential benefits when it comes to approval. Myers singled out electric propulsion systems and solar electric power systems as those receiving the majority of investment dollars.

Myers said that other major deterrents to investment are the size of the market and the length of time it takes to bring systems to market — delays that can last a decade. The longer the time, the more likely the investment will fail, he said.

Jonny Dyer, chief engineer with Skybox Imaging, explained that the reliance on known systems stunts growth, quipping, “We are flying 50-year-old technology exclusively, with thrusters going back to Apollo. Imagine if I tried to sell you a 50-year-old telephone. Nobody is going to buy a 50-year-old telephone.”

Not to be outdone, when asked what the greatest barrier to electric propulsion in space was, Mark Lewis, director of the Science and Technology Policy Institute, Institute of Defense Analyses, deadpanned, “The need for a long extension cord.”

All levity aside, in the end, new propulsion systems for satellites — both large and small — will come down to their return on investment. If the return is there, investments will come; if the risk is too great, investors will stay out of the market.


All 2015 AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum Videos