In just a couple of years, NASA plans to launch its biggest rocket ship since the Moon landings of the 1960s and '70s.
Stretching 322 feet stem to stern, NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS) will be twice the height of the Space Shuttle. Packing two enormous solid rocket boosters built by Orbital ATK (NYSE:OA), lending added "oomph" to a core stage built by Aerojet Rocketdyne (NYSE:AJRD), SLS will produce 8.4 million pounds of thrust at liftoff -- enough thrust to send 70 metric tons of cargo into orbit (and later iterations of SLS may carry as much as 130 tons).
Yet when SLS takes off for the first time in 2018, its cargo will consist largely of a baker's dozen of tiny "CubeSats," no one of which is any bigger than a breadbox. Why?
Built by primary contractor Boeing (NYSE:BA), the SLS is intended to be America's next-generation rocket ship for carrying astronauts to the stars. (Or more realistically, to the Moon, nearby asteroids -- maybe eventually even Mars). For that to happen, though, NASA needs to make sure not just that the rocket itself works as designed, but that the Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT)-designed Orion crew capsule that sits atop the rocket can safely transport humans.
Testing those two pieces of equipment, therefore -- the rockets, and the spaceship -- will be the two primary objectives of Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) when it launches into space, circles the Moon, and returns to Earth. As long as SLS is making the trip, though, NASA figured it might as well load some secondary cargo on board so as not to waste the opportunity. It's these 13 CubeSats that will make up that secondary payload.
Among the CubeSats will be:
- Two satellites designed to orbit the Moon in search of ice deposits that might later be mined for oxygen for breathing, hydrogen for fueling, and water... for drinking, by later visitors to Earth's nearest neighbor.
- Another satellite looking specifically for frozen hydrogen deposits on the Moon.
- A Lockheed Martin "Skyfire" satellite that will scan the lunar topography.
- And "NEA Scout," a robotic reconnaissance mission that will head out into space to reconnoiter a small near-Earth asteroid (yet to be determined) to learn more about such objects' orbit, rotation, composition, and potential resources thereon.
What it means for investors
"Space" headlines these past few years have been largely dominated with lamentations over the death of the U.S. Space Shuttle program and America's dependence on Russian rocket engines to power the rockets that launch out satellites, and with the need to develop new ways to get into orbit without help from President Putin.
These are all valid concerns. But preoccupied as we have been over the problems of getting access to Earth orbit, many people may have forgotten: There's a big, big universe out there, and eventually we're going to have to leave home and explore it. NASA's itinerary for EM-1, however, reassures us that NASA at least has not missed this point.
With SLS, NASA's laying the groundwork for "deep space" travel. And the missions it's chosen for the CubeSats it's sending up with EM-1 -- scanning potential landing and colonization points on the Moon, looking for resources to breathe, drink, and fill up the gas tank with once we get there -- provide further evidence that NASA is serious about satisfying the logistics of deep space exploration. For America and its esprit de corps, that's grand news. For investors in the companies that will help get us back into space -- Boeing and Lockheed most obviously, but also supporting players Aerojet Rocketdyne and Orbital ATK, and even yet-to-IPO companies such as Blue Origin and SpaceX -- it's pretty good news as well.
As grand plans turn into great contracts, we can only hope that terrific profits will ensue for these companies and their shareholders. It's exciting times to be an investor -- in space.