The markets: Aerospace (2014)

Although North America currently dominates this market, Asia and the Middle East, in fact, are expected to be the primary drivers of global aerospace industry demand in the coming years.

As 2013 dawned, The Aerospace Composites Market 2012-2022, by market analysts at Visiongain (London, U.K.), indicated that the global aerospace composites market will reach a value of $10.3 billion in 2012. According to Visiongain, the aerospace composites market is expected to record continuous growth in the next decade. In the shorter term, market research firm Lucintel (Los Colinas, Texas), in Global Commercial Airliner and Regional Aircraft Industry 2012-2017: Trend, Profit, and Forecast Analysis, expected the global commercial airliner and regional aircraft market to reach approximately $112 billion annually by 2017, with a CAGR of 5.3 percent over the next five years. Increasing demand from emerging economies for new low-cost carriers, the growing middle class in these economies, and airways deregulation are the factors that will drive growth in markets such as Asia and the Middle East.

Although North America currently dominates this market, Asia and the Middle East, in fact, are expected to be the primary drivers of global aerospace industry demand in the coming years. Accordingly, the aerospace industry is expecting increases in the production of new fleets, especially in the narrow-body aircraft segment.

In fact, aviation was flying high even when most of the world economy was crawling. World air travel has grown 5 percent per year since 1980, in spite of 9/11 and other challenges. Air travel demand is forecast to continue at about the same rate per revenue passenger kilometer (RPK) for the next 20 years. Richard Aboulafia, a VP at aerospace and defense market analysis firm Teal Group Corp. (Fairfax, Va.), graphed 57 percent growth between 2008 and 2012, while almost “nothing else grew in that period,” he says.

Alan Pardoe, head of marketing communications for aeromanufacturer Airbus (Toulouse, France), noted that in a global economy it’s “always sunny somewhere.” In 2013, the sun has been brightest in the emerging Asia Pacific, Latin American and African markets.

Low interest rates combined with new technologies that reduce fuel consumption and, thus, combat rising fuel costs — primarily re-engined airplanes that feature composites and other lightweight materials — have encouraged airlines to purchase new aircraft and retire older models. The already strong demand for composites, therefore, is expected to grow 10 percent per year, according to Dr. Kevin Michaels, VP of aviation consulting firm ICF SH&E (Fairfax, Va.) on the strength of technical superiority, He noted that new wing designs can be made with composites in ways “you can’t make them out of metals.”

For 2012, Michaels shows aerospace composites’ total buy weight at 4 percent, or about 48 million lb (21,770 metric tonnes) out of a total of about 1.2 billion lb (544,310 metric tonnes) of raw material. In terms of revenue, that’s 16 percent, or $1.4 billion of the total $8.7 billon. Rivals The Boeing Co. (Chicago, Ill.) and Airbus reportedly consume nearly 70 percent of the total. (For Airbus, that’s an average of 40 metric tonnes or 88,185 lb of composites per day.)

In its Opportunities for Composites in the Global Aerospace Market 2013-2032, Lucintel says that although composites usage varies between aircraft types, the trend going forward is greater use of composites in all aircraft. The market is anticipated to grow to 101.8 million lb (46,175 metric tonnes), valued at $4.5 billion by 2022. The firm also predicts continued growth across all the sectors of civil aircraft. The majority of deliveries will be in the business-jet and single-aisle mainline markets. But, twin-aisle aircraft designed for use on longer-range routes will still dominate the market in terms of value. The fastest-growing segments are expected to be the 200- to 350-seat twin-aisle sector, large regional jets, and very light business jets.

In early 2013, commercial plane builders expressed continued confidence as single-aisle regional jets took the stage. Aero-industry observers talked about aviation’s “Russian Renaissance,” and the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market anticipated access to civil airspace and general aviation, after taking a hard hit during the Great Recession.

In January 2013, The Boeing Co. (Chicago, Ill.) was producing its 787 Dreamliner at a rate of five per month and expected by late 2013, to up that monthly rate to 10 aircraft. In support of that goal, Boeing purchased an 850,000-ft2/78,976m2 building in West Jordan, Utah, to house production of composite horizontal stabilizer components destined for its 787-9 model.

Notably, production continued apace even when the entire delivered fleet of Dreamilners was grounded by the U.S. Federal Aviation Admin. (FAA) while investigators looked into two fires involving the craft’s lithium-ion battery packs. Despite dire predictions by some aero-industry pundits, the build rate was already back up to seven planes per month when the grounded fleet began its return to service in late May, after battery-system modifications and FAA-recertification.

Boeing also introduced another 787 Dreamliner version, the 787-10 — 18 ft/5.5m longer than the 787-9, with 300 to 330 seats and a 7,000 nautical miles/12,964 km range, a distance that Boeing says covers 92 percent of the world’s twin-aisle routes and city pairs. The new version reportedly will be 25 percent more efficient than today’s similarly sized aircraft. Also on the 2013 docket was the revamped Boeing 777, or 777X, which will be introduced with a larger “4th generation” composite wing, based on the 787’s wing design and made with the same materials and aero-characteristics.

Airbus got its A350 XWB in the air for its first flight the first week of June and picked up 69 new orders from four customers for the plane a week later at the 2013 Paris Air Show. It had also begun static airframe testing on its first static test airframe, sized for its A350-900 model. By late February, that first aircraft had moved into ground testing and assembly of a third test craft was in process.

Airbus predicted in its latest Global Market Forecast for 2013-2032 "Future Journeys" that air traffic will grow by 4.7 percent annually, requiring more than 29,220 new passenger aircraft and freighters at a value of nearly $4.4 trillion. By 2032, the number of flying aircraft will have doubled to 36,560.  

The Boeing Co. (Chicago, Ill.), in its Current Market Outlook 2013-2032 noted that commercial aviation has weathered many downturns and recovered quickly, returning “reliably” to a long-term growth rate of 5 percent per annum. Boeing graphed 2012 passenger traffic up by 5.3 percent from 2011 and sees that trend as steady during the next two decades, as world passenger traffic also grows 5 percent annually. Air cargo traffic has been moderating after a high period in 2010. Although air cargo traffic contracted by 1.5 percent in 2012, economic expansion in emerging markets is expected to increase the need for fast transport of goods. Therefore, Boeing predicts air cargo transport will grow 5 percent annually through 2032.

Overall, Boeing projects a long-term demand for 35,280 new airplanes, valued at $4.8 trillion. About 14,350 of these (41 percent of total new deliveries) will replace aging aircraft. The remaining 20,930 will accommodate fleet growth, stimulating expansion in emerging markets and engendering innovative airline business models. About 8,590 new wide-body airplanes will be needed, Boeing says, while some 24,670 airplanes (70 percent of new deliveries) will be single-aisle models, reflecting growth in China and other emerging markets.

In line with that, attention in 2013 shifted away from the long-haul, large-capacity airliners to the single-aisle segment. In March 2013, David Williams, VP of procurement for Airbus, said that narrow-body passenger jets are expected to be the focus. Although some have questioned the viability of using composites in single-aisle fuselage and wing skins, they’re nevertheless aboard forthcoming models, at least in supporting roles.

Moscow-based IRKUT, for example — a key player in Russia’s recent rise to aeromanufacturing celebrity — showcased its narrow-body MS-21 commercial jet at Paris air Show 2013. Its 30 percent composite airframe includes a vacuum-infused wing produced by IRKUT’s AeroComposit center of excellence, using Hexcel’s (Stamford, Conn.) HiTape dry carbon out-of-autoclave reinforcements and automated layup. The design is frozen, the aircraft has entered production and testing is already underway, with first flight scheduled for 2015.

Elsewhere, Bombardier’s (Montréal, Québec, Canada) new single-aisle CSeries jets feature composite wings built in Belfast, Northern Ireland. South American competitor Embraer (São José dos Campos, Brazil) has used composites in doors and other secondary structures in its RJ models and is considering composites for primary structure on its new E-175 jet. And Tokyo, Japan-based Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp.’s on Oct. 16, began final assembly of its first composite-winged 70- to 90-seat regional jet, the Mitsubishi MRJ, which also will be the first commercial passenger aircraft ever built in Japan. The news came after the aeromanufacturer delayed, for a third time, the plane’s first flight, pushing it into the second quarter of 2014. The company expects to sell as many as 5,000 MRJs in the next 20 years. But media reports in August put the MRJ’s first flight in first-quarter 2015 with first delivery to launch customer All Nippon Airways somewhere between second-quarter 2015 and first-quarter 2016.

Meanwhile, jet engine manufacturers are incorporating composites in next-gen jet engines. Pratt & Whitney (East Hartford, Conn.) has a carbon/epoxy composite fan case on its PW1000G PurePower Geared Turbofan engine, which powers the Airbus A320neo aircraft family. It incorporates a fan-drive gear system that reduces the fan speed, providing lower noise and improved fuel consumption. Carbon fiber and 6-6 silicon carbide composites (along with titanium aluminide) are also incorporated into engines that are being built for narrow-body planes by Cincinnati, Ohio-based CFM International, a joint venture of GE (Evendale, Ohio) and Snecma SA (Evry, France, part of the Safran Group). CFM’s LEAP engine already has grabbed 70 percent of the next-gen single-aisle market -— roughly 2,200 engines per year — and uses carbon composites in the fan blades and fan case, displacing titanium and aluminum, to cut aircraft weight by 1000 lb/454 kg and reduce fuel burn by 15 percent.

Engine OEM Safran SA (Paris, France) announced a long-term contract with Hexcel for the supply of carbon composite materials for the LEAP-1 jet engine. Hexcel will supply HexTow IM7 carbon fiber to be used in the manufacture of all LEAP-1 fan blades and containment cases, including those for the Airbus A320neo, the Boeing 737MAX and the Beijing-based Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China’s Comac 919. Hexcel also will supply carbon prepreg for the manufacture of A320neo nacelles.

Safran also partnered with Albany Engineered Composites (Rochester, N.H.) to produce woven 3-D preforms for carbon fiber fan blades made in a resin transfer molding (RTM) process for the LEAP engine program. Demand for the blades is rising, and Albany is in the process of building a new manufacturing facility in New Hampshire to produce the parts in greater numbers.

Elsewhere, GE Aviation confirmed that its GE9X engine for the Boeing 777X will likely include ceramic-matrix composites (CMC) materials as rotating components in the engine’s second stage, the “hot zone” where exotic metal superalloys are typically employed. GE says the switch to CMCs could reduce fuel burn, thanks to lighter weight and improved thermal performance — that is, air would not have to be diverted for cooling CMC parts, as is required for metal components.

Indeed, after 20 years of R&D, during which commercial successes for CMCs have been largely limited to missile structures, radomes and exhaust systems for fighter jets, major CMC development programs are currently underway, there is growing investment in production-scale manufacturing, and CMCs might well be at their tipping point (To read more on this subject, click on “Ceramic-matrix composites heat up,” under “Editor’s Picks,” at top right.)

Vincent Chanron, VP of marketing for Daher-Socata (Paris, France and Los Angeles, Calif.), a Tier 1 aerostructures supplier, spoke for many at the 2013 SpeedNews Aviation Suppliers Conferences (March 4-6, Beverly Hills, Calif.) about the advantages and applications of thermoplastic composites in aerospace, especially for parts that benefit from thermoplastics’ greater impact resistance, including the wing leading edge, the cockpit floor and movable ribs and spars. Although still a niche market, 20 to 40 percent growth for reinforced thermoplastics is expected in aviation during the next few years.

In late October 2013, the General Aviation Manufacturers Assn. (GAMA, Washington, D.C.) reported that total worldwide general aviation (GA) airplane shipments were 6.6 percent higher than over the same period in 2012, from 1,419 to 1,513 shipments. Billings for GA airplanes worldwide in the first nine months of 2013 reached $15.4 billion, up 24.5 percent from the same period last year, when they totaled $12.4 billion.

GAMA said single- and multi-engine turboprop shipments continued their positive trajectory, increasing 9.3 percent and 42.4 percent, respectively, this year. Piston engine airplanes increased 7.9 percent to 667 shipments compared to 618 airplane shipments in 2012. However, business jet shipments were down from 430 units in the first nine months of 2012 to 421 in 2013.

Worldwide, there are roughly 100 companies that produce GA aircraft. The top 10 GA manufacturers, however, represent about 63 percent of the market for composite aircraft structures, says Composites Forecasts’ Chris Red. Chief among them are Cirrus Aircraft, Diamond Aircraft, Cessna and Bombardier. For the rest of this decade, growth in the light-sport aircraft (LSA) segment is expected to continue at the expense of more traditional one- or two-passenger aircraft designs. The high end of the GA market, particularly the large luxury and intercontinental business jets, escaped the past four years of turmoil relatively unscathed. These subsectors of the business jet market are expected grow an average of 7 percent annually through 2020, including about a dozen transcontinental supersonic business jets and prototypes. Carbon composites will represent about 62 percent of the total GA aircraft structures volume. Carbon fiber suppliers can be expected to deliver about 1.17 million lb (530 metric tonnes) of intermediate- and standard-modulus materials to secondary processors to manufacture prepregs and infusion fabrics for GA applications. That figure represents about 7 percent of all CFRP material shipments to aerospace firms. From 2011 through 2020, about 15.87 million lb (7,200 metric tonnes) of carbon fiber materials will be consumed in GA aircraft. Similarly, glass suppliers about 99.21 million lb (4,500 metric tonnes) of glass fiber reinforcments product during that period. These reinforcements will be combined with about 3 million lb (1,336 metric tonnes) of resins, primarily epoxies.

In 2013, GA activity picked up as predicted. As the year began, crews at Bombardier’s Wichita, Kan., assembly line attached the first composite wingset, made at Bombardier’s Querétero, Mexico, facility, to the fuselage of Flight Test Vehicle (FTV-1) and received a second wingset for FTV2, for its much delayed Learjet 85 business jet. First flight was anticipated at press time for late 2013 with entry into service nine-months late in third-quarter 2014. The Learjet 85 is designed to fly 3,000 nm/5,556 km (e.g., Montréal nonstop to Los Angeles) at speeds of up to 470 kts (871kmh).

Also in Paris, small-aircraft OEM Flaris (Podgórzyn, Poland) had on hand its previously unannounced very light jet, dubbed the Flaris LAR-01. The carbon composite airframed, five-seat, single-engine jet has detachable wings and short takeoff and landing (STOL) capability.

Terrafugia Inc (Woburn, Mass.) announced in January 2013 a $2.7 million cash infusion and continued modifications of its Transition “roadable aircraft” design in anticipation of certification processes involving both the U.S. Federal Aviation Admin. (FAA) and the National Highway Safety Admin. (The Transition made its public aerial debut in August at the EAA AirVenture 2013 airshow in Oshkosh, Wis.) And Terrafugia followed its Transition announcements, in May, with word that it had begun feasibility studies on a four-seat, vertical-take-off-and-landing (VTOL), plug-in hybrid electric flying car, the TFX.

And even Airbus got into the GA act, introducing at the 2013 Paris Air Show the E-Fan, an electric-powered general aviation trainer, codeveloped in cooperation with Aero Composites Saintonge (Charente-Maritime, France). The plane is reportedly the first fruit of one of several alternative propulsion development projects Airbus has entered into with other aeromanufacturers.

Notably, China’s aircraft industry continued to benefit in 2013 from collaborations with aeromanufacturers in the West. GKN Aerospace (Isle of Wight, U.K.), for example, partnered with Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing Co. (SAMC, Shanghai, China) to produce the composite horizontal tail plane for Shanghai-based Commercial Aircraft Co. of China’s (COMAC) twin-engined, narrow-body 150-seat C919. And early in the year, Cessna Aircraft (Wichita, Kan.) entered into a joint venture with China Aviation Industry General aircraft Co. Ltd. (CAIGA, Zhuhai, China) for final assembly of Cessna Citation XLS+ business jets for the Chinese market.

In 2013, aircraft interiors took a well-deserved turn in the spotlight: Composite Forecasts’ Red points out that for composite materials and manufacturing processes, aircraft interiors actually represent a larger market for composites (by volume) than airframe structures, accounting for as much as 40 percent of the commercial airliner’s empty operating weight. Noting that there is room for greater composites penetration, Red broke the interiors market into two segments: the OEM-driven new-build market and the more volatile but two to three times larger aftermarket. New-build interiors consumed 6 million lb (2,722 metric tonnes) of composite components annually as 2013 began, he reported. “By the time the [Airbus] A350 and [Bombardier] CSeries … and other new single-aisle aircraft enter production,” he predicted, “the OEM market is expected to grow at least 50 percent.”

Red saw great potential for both new-build and aftermarket segments, due to a post-recession rebound, with composite seat frames leading the way. New and replacement seating reportedly has the potential to consume 4 million to 5 million lb (1,814 to 2,268 metric tonnes) of composites form 2013 to 2018, from 400 to 450 kg (882 to 992 lb) per single-aisle aircraft. According to Red, there is a potential new-build and replacement market of more than 2 million coach seats per year.

On the defense front, most of the aviation action was in Europe. Airbus Military (Madrid, Spain), for example, reported on March 6 that its A400M military airlifter had completed its maiden flight, putting the replacement for aging, American-made C-130 transports on a course for first delivery, to the French Air Force, in the second quarter of 2013 and deliver three more four aircraft in 2013.The A400M makes use of composites, notably in its all-carbon fiber, one-piece bay door and its propellers. The long delayed first delivery, to the French Air Force, finally took place on Sept. 30.

Among the large number of recently developed aircraft from Russia, Moscow-based Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E fighter jet was a rising star at the 2013 Paris Air Show. The powerful twin-engine, long-range warplane, developed for the Russian Air Force, demonstrated low-speed handling and high-speed maneuverability and its composite airframe materials allow additional fuel storage.

Best known for the An-225 military heavy-lift cargo plane, Kiev, Ukraine-based Antonov, an aircraft OEM that went through some tough times after the breakup of the Soviet Union, also was in the spotlight, touting its use of digital design tools in new aircraft designs. Among them are the An-148 and An-158 regional jets and their variants — all of which incorporate significant percentages of composite materials — and the An-70 cargo aircraft. The latter reportedly has 10 metric tonnes (22,046 lb) more payload capability than Airbus Military’s (Madrid, Spain) A400M cargo airlifter and can operate from short and unimproved airstrips in rough conditions.

In the U.S., the wind-downs of two wars continued to have a chilling effect on U.S. defense spending. That said, officials of the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey Joint Program — jointly conducted by Bell Helicopter Textron (Ft. Worth, Texas) and Boeing — revealed that the tiltrotor aircraft’s VTOL capabilities in shipboard operations has increased its desirability in the view of key U.S. allies. As a result, additional aircraft — beyond the original program numbers — will be offered for sale to international partners, including Canada, Japan, Israel, Italy and, potentially, others. Boeing also announced that it, Embraer (São Paolo, Brazil) and Bell Boeing also will partner on the sales and marketing of Embraer’s KC-390 multimission medium airlifter. Embraer will produce the aircraft, and Boeing will take the lead in sales, sustainment and training. And Spirit AeroSystems Inc. (Wichita, Kan.) began work in mid-2013 on a $60 million (USD) contract from Stratford, Conn.-based Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. to supply composite structural cockpit and cabin components for four additional CH-53K heavy-lift helicopters. Spirit already had supplied Sikorsky with the cockpit and cabin structures, valued at $150 million, for five prototype CH-53K test rotorcraft and two nonflying test articles as part of a $3.5 billion System Development and Demonstration (SDD) contract, awarded to Sikorsky in April 2006. The U.S. Navy modified the SDD in May 2013 to include $435 million in funding for the four SDTA aircraft, which Sikorsky is expected to deliver to the Navy by the end of March 2017, when they are expected to enter Operational Evaluation, This new, composites-intensive CH-53K is designed to triple the external load-carrying capacity of the current CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter.

            In 2013, however, the biggest news was unmanned aircraft, both for defense and civil use. CW columnist Dale Brosius spoke for many observers in July when he said, “the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) will be the last U.S.-built fighter aircraft with a seat for a human pilot. JSF production is currently planned for another 15 to 20 years — up to 3,000 aircraft. By the time the last F-35 rolls off the line, a new generation of nimble unmanned combat aircraft will be ready to take flight. And these aircraft will be faster and more capable than the JSF.”

Composite Forecasts and Consulting’s Red said his research into unmanned aerial systems (UAS) sales and deliveries has identified a global market for approximately 57,000 military units. And a Teal Group Corp. (Fairfax, Va.) review of global research, development and procurement spending for UASs indicates that the total UAS spending in 2013 — military and civil — was expected to exceed $6.5 billion and then roughly double by 2022. More than one-third of these aircraft are destined for one of the U.S. armed services. In fact, the annual total for both U.S. and all international military UAV production could be as high as 7,000 units by 2020.

Another key trend is a move from mostly unarmed — radar decoys, target drones and information, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems — to armed systems. Although a fully operational unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) is probably more than a decade away from active service, known development projects include three acknowledged by the Russian military. One, the RSK MiG Skat, is a low-observable, subsonic craft designed to carry weapons in two ventral bays large enough for missiles. The second, the Luch UCAV, is based on the manned Sigma-5 aircraft. The third is based on the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker, dubbed the Su-27RV Flanker UCAV. Meanwhile, China’s Shenyang Aircraft Corp. (Shenyang, Liaoning Province) is also developing three craft: the J-21, the Dark Sword, and the Tiannu. And in the European Union, BAE Systems Plc (London, U.K.) is working on the Taranis; EADS (Leiden, The Netherlands) has its Barracuda; Paris, France-based Dassault Aviation will field the Neuron; and Sweden’s Saab AB (Bromma) is developing two: the Sharc and the Filur. It might be premature to predict the demise of manned fighters and bombers, but it seems nearly certain that UASs, such as the Northrop Grumman (Falls Church, Va.) X-47B UCLASS, will begin to displace manned fighter aircraft during the next decade.

Composites Forecasts’ Red, however, emphasized a bright future for UAVs off the battlefield, in civil aerospace (To read more, click on “Beyond the battlefield: UAS technology 2012-2022,” under “Editor’s Picks”). In the next few years, new rules and protocols and modernized air traffic control systems in the U.S. and the EU are expected to roll back limitations now imposed on UAS operators within civilian airspace. The easing of these restrictions will not only enable military and government customers to fully exploit UAS capabilities but it also is expected to permit a large number of potential new civilian uses. UAS fleets will still surveil battlefields, but they could be used to monitor crop conditions, too, allowing farmers to improve productivity and reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides. In populated areas, relatively inexpensive unmanned rotorcraft could provide first responders with a greater ability to rapidly respond to accidents and natural disasters, and they could support law enforcement — potentially reducing reliance on manned helicopters. Potential uses include but are not limited to aerial imaging and mapping, disaster management, environmental monitoring, freight transport, oil and gas exploration, thermal infrared power line surveys, media (news, sports coverage and moviemaking), weather monitoring and wildfire mapping.

A March 2013 report, The Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the United States, published by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI, Arlington, Va.), indicates that NAS clearance could add more than 100,000 UAS-related jobs and $80 billion to the U.S. economy alone, between 2015 and 2025. The AUVSI study also predicts that 90 percent of total UAS sales for this emergent civil sector will be in public safety and agriculture. In fact, he AUVSI report indicates that the potential market for agricultural UASs in the U.S. alone could quickly grow from a supposed 2015 “zero point” to as many as 160,000 aircraft per year. AUVSI sees law-enforcement applications as the next largest sector, representing a potential demand for as many as 10,000 UASs annually. Applied on a global scale, the potential for large and small civil UASs could represent a potential, worldwide, for more than 300,000 aircraft per year — more than 30 times greater than anticipated military demand.

Red, however, offered a more conservative civil forecast of roughly 115,000 UASs, with annual deliveries approaching 30,000 aircraft by 2020. Military and civil demand, combined, was expected to spur production of as many as 2,400 units in 2013, (90 percent of these units will have a maximum takeoff weight of 22 lb/10 kg or less.) By 2022, says Red, total annual production could exceed 35,000 units — a 15x growth factor. Civil UAVs could double the demand for composites within the UAS sector within a few years. And, he says, the civil UAV market expansion could propel UAV composites manufacturing to levels roughly equal to other aerospace sectors, including fighter jets, rotorcraft and business jets.

            Civilian space transport also was in the news: In late 2012, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX, Hawthorne, Calif.) took center stage when its Dragon unmanned space vehicle was docked at the International Space Station. It delivered 882 lb/400 kg of supplies to the orbiting laboratory and returned with a total of 1,673 lb/759 kg, to Earth splashdown — a key milestone in the new era of commercial spaceflight. The delivery flight is SpaceX’s first of 12 contracted resupply missions (through 2016) under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract, worth $1.6 billion.

On June 6, 2013, Sierra Nevada’s (Sparks, Nev.) Dream Chaser manned spacecraft concept completed Preliminary Design Review (PDR). That same week, a full-scale Dream Chaser made its first flight. Engineered to provide the U.S. with a piloted craft designed to make 25 round trips to the ISS with a crew of seven plus cargo, the craft features composite materials in both primary and secondary structures, including the cabin, bulkhead, canted fins, aerosurfaces and aeroshells. It is primarily carbon fiber preimpregnated with bismaleimide (BMI) resin, in both woven fabric and unidirectional tape, in a sandwich structure with a nonmetallic honeycomb core. BMI was selected over epoxy because it has a higher service temperature — up to 230°C to 290°C (450°F to 550°F) — and is less subject to oxidation/erosion when exposed to atomic oxygen in space (to read more, click on  “U.S. crew & cargo candidate takes shape with composites,” under “Editor’s Picks”).

Elsewhere in the U.S., the National Aeronautics and Space Admin. (NASA) announced on July 2, 2013, that it had recently completed a major space technology development milestone by successfully testing a subscale, pressurized cryogenic propellant tank, built with composite materials by The Boeing Co. at its Tukwila, Wash., facility. NASA and Boeing are at work on a full-scale (27.5-ft/8.4m) tank, the size of metal tanks found in today’s large launch vehicles) that will be tested in 2014. Notably, the tank manufacturing process represents a number of industry breakthroughs, including automated fiber placement of oven-cured materials and fiber placement of an all-composite, leakproof tank wall design. Boeing and its toolmaking partner, Janicki Industries (Sedro-Woolley, Wash.), developed collapsible tooling that eliminates the need for tank joints, which have been particularly prone to leaks in the past. Composite tanks are expected to replace all-metal constructions in the next generation of rockets and spacecraft used for space exploration.

Meanwhile, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), a composites-intensive satellite, was successfully launched on Sept. 6, 2013, atop a Minotaur V launch vehicle. The satellite features a unique, composite “common bus” design — the fruit of a modular build strategy based on commercial, off-the-shelf parts that enables design-to-launch in only two years for as little as $50 million — one-tenth the cost of conventional unmanned space missions (read more in “Optimization software improves small, low-cost satellite design” under “Editor’s Picks”).

Elsewhere on the private space front, Virgin Galactic (Las Cruces, N.M.) touted LauncherOne, its proposed aircraft-launched rocket, specifically designed to deliver small satellites into orbit. With substantial funding already in hand and commercial flights expected to begin by 2016, Virgin Galactic said it aimed to offer launches at the world’s lowest prices. Four private companies have reportedly put down deposits for a total of several dozen launches.

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