With the success of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, it seems like the age of truly commercial space launch has arrived. But what exactly is a commercial launch? When I worked with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (launch licensing office) we spent a fair amount of time trying to decide what a commercial launch was, but we never had an entirely satisfactory definition. Although some governments funded vehicle development in different ways, there were no vehicles that were not the product of some form of fairly direct governmental support. Even Ariane, the most “commercial” of launch vehicles, was commercial in operation only, not in inception and development, and could easily call on government support when things went wrong.
SpaceX is not the first private company to try to break through the commercial space launch market. The company, however, appears to be the real thing. Privately funded, it had a vehicle before it got money from NASA, and while NASA’s space station resupply funds are a tremendous boost, SpaceX would have existed without it. Apparently it is not just its founder, Elon Musk, who thinks well of his baby: NASA, numerous private companies, and now even the U.S. Department of State take it seriously as well with a manifest of almost 50 launches.
If a customer list does not convince you, consider that plans for the Ariane 6 – Ariane 5’s ultimate replacement – are for a vehicle that looks a lot more like SpaceX’s Falcon than the current Ariane. Additionally, there is talk that the Ariane 6 will use a more efficient manufacturing process, attempting to gain SpaceX’s production efficiencies at the expense of the European Space Agency’s current “spread the wealth” policy. In a way, this should come as no surprise since the original Ariane 5 was intended to be the launcher for ESA’s Hermes spaceplane, not to be an exclusively commercial vehicle. But like the American EELVs, Delta IV and Atlas V, the Ariane 5 rose as a champion that assured European access to space, and served European government and commercial launch needs.
A Look Ahead
Five years ago, the question was whether SpaceX could master the art of launch vehicles. Now the question is whether they can fill the obligations they have taken on. I have heard it suggested, for instance, that SpaceX – and Musk – were too “flighty:” always reaching for the next technological triumph without consolidating their current success. It is true that their constant stream of new designs and ideas being announced could offer this interpretation, but I disagree. I believe that what we are seeing is the difference between a truly commercial launch vehicle developer that thrives by expanding the market, and those that are more closely bound to the old model.
Incumbent launch vehicle providers have been more focused on assured access to space than on expanding that access. This is not a fault; to have asked them to wager their futures on technology that was not necessarily sufficient and markets that might well not be elastic enough would have been unreasonable. Now, however, SpaceX has raised the bar. Decisions such as continuing Ariane 5’s evolution rather than quickly moving on to Ariane 6 begin to look conservative, if not yet unwise. If SpaceX can run a railroad – not just build it – incumbent launch companies will have to respond becoming more fleet of foot, or risk falling by the wayside.
Protons’s recent problems show that even the most tested vehicle can have problems that must be resolved, but no one doubts that ILS will launch successfully in the future. SpaceX has entered the launch market at a price that is already impacting other launch providers. If SpaceX builds a record of successes to compare with Ariane 5 or Atlas V, Falcon launch vehicles will have a tremendous competitive advantage. Even then, however, SpaceX capacity constraints and the satellite industry’s well-established desire to maintain a diverse stable of launch vehicles will limit SpaceX’s ultimate market share in the commercial satellite market.
What remains unclear is whether SpaceX’s pricing structure and technological innovation are sustainable and whether they will expand the launch market. Currently, most things we do in space can be done at existing prices so, what new markets will SpaceX, and those who respond to them, create? Will access to Bigelow Aerospace’s space habitats develop into a true commercial market? Will space station resupply remain an anchor tenant? Perhaps the new generation of high throughput satellites will create an expanded demand for space-based communications in new roles supercharged by lower launch costs. For SpaceX and the launch industry as a whole, the question is no longer whether a commercial launch vehicle is possible but, instead, what difference will it make.
Max Engel is an experienced satellite industry and telecom industry analyst and founder of The North Star Consultancy. He can be reached at email@example.com.