A Tale of Two Dragons

The May flight of the SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) marked a milestone in human spaceflight: the first mission by a privately owned, commercial company (one only 10 years old) to rendezvous and dock with an in-orbit space station, to resupply the station and to return cargo from the station to Earth. The Dragon had on a previous flight become the first commercial spacecraft to successfully return to Earth from orbit. Before the successful launch, an abort immediately before liftoff in response to an anomalous sensor reading seemed to indicate a technically sophisticated and mature system and launch team, and the launch followed days later. Even on its short history to date, Falcon 9/Dragon is a significant validation of the Augustine Committee report and the Obama Administration’s fiscal 2011 budget, which proposed the off-loading of “routine” near-Earth operations such as resupply of the ISS to commercial providers.

On June 16, a Long March 2F launch vehicle carried the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft to orbit, carrying a crew of three on China’s fourth human spaceflight (including China’s first repeat “Taikonaut”) and first female Taikonaut. Two days later, Shenzhou 9 rendezvoused and docked with China’s space lab Tiangong-1 in another first for China’s human space program and practice event for its own future space station. China is not a part of the ISS consortium due to United States opposition to its participation. The result of that opposition has clearly accelerated, rather than retarded, China’s emergence as a space-faring nation.

Beyond the intrinsic interest of these events, though, the emergence of China and SpaceX — these two new space entrants — not just able to launch, but able to do useful work in space, and their respective launch vehicles and payloads pose potentially greatly disruptive effects on the satellite and space industry.

Until now, SpaceX was for the most part seen as a plucky new market entrant, and policymakers were wont to applaud the ambitious entrepreneurial spirit of its founder, Elon Musk, that animated it. Now, however, SpaceX is a reality that threatens the exclusive access to space gateway for civil and military payloads enjoyed by the major launch service providers, and will attract some baleful attention from their patron Congressmen. Moreover, the success of the Dragon threatens the place and the premise of the major aerospace firms. While Falcon 9 and Dragon must build a reliability heritage over time to compete with their U.S., European and Russian competitors, their appearance and performance are living rebukes to everyone who dismissed SpaceX and its claims that its claimed economic and production efficiencies would revolutionize access to space.

Now that Long March is building a human-rated launch heritage and China is clearly committed to deploying its own space station, it may be past time to rethink the practical utility of the U.S. position. Although U.S. operators do not provide a market for Long March, Long March’s availability is likely in time to significantly affect the global commercial market for launch services supply, especially if China decides to make a serious play for a position in that market. The global commercial launch services market is already so affected by oversupply and razor-thin margins that it can ill afford a new market entrant that is really trying to take a share. In addition, China’s space program is mission-driven, like NASA in the 1960s. It may invest heavily in things that the United States, Europe and Russia have disregarded, things like satellite life extension and resupply. The potential for disruptive effects on manufacturers and operators also cannot be underestimated.

The point here is the unlikely answer to the question of what the world’s most populous country and rapidly emerging economy and an entrepreneurial 10-year old California-based private company have in common, and why they may have disruptive effects on the satellite and space industry. The answers are: quite a lot; and because they are new on the scene, are determined to succeed, are willing to invest to do so and have no obligations to the dominant model of the way things are done and have been done for a long time. It is a tale of two Dragons, and it does not look likely to end anytime soon.

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