Launch Exec Panel Reveals Some Still Hoping for GEO Satellite “Reset”
Launch providers speaking at World Satellite Business Week (WSBW) yesterday told audiences that the stagnant GEO satellite market is creating a number of challenges as they look to grow their businesses. However, the panel was split when it came to forecasting future GEO orders, with United Launch Alliance (ULA) President and CEO Tory Bruno and ILS President Kirk Pysher stating that they still believe the GEO market could “hit the reset button” and make a comeback.
Current Via Satellite Satellite Executive of the Year, Gwynne Shotwell, President and CEO of SpaceX, is neither expecting, nor waiting for a GEO comeback. She described the GEO market as “soft” and said that she does not expect her assessment will change much over the next year. “I think we are at a permanent flow of lack of GEO satellite orders,” she said. Shotwell believes small satellites will fly with GEO satellites going forward even if they are on a different path.
Where does SpaceX see growth? The California-based commercial launch provider just signed 13 new contract with government customers, and this has been a key growth driver for the company. Shotwell believes this growth will offset the decrease in GEO orders. “The largest growth area will be once we fly crew, and private passengers. In essence, there are even billion payloads on Earth. I think the majority of the market going forward will be flying people. The loss of GEO will not be a crushing blow for us,” she said.
Another former Via Satellite Satellite Executive of the Year, Stephane Israel, CEO of Arianespace echoed a number of Shotwell’s sentiments by saying that the GEO market was soft and that Arianespace was having to adapt to new market realities. Israel highlighted the importance of the new Ariane 6 and Vega C vehicles that will offer more performance and versatility. “We have designed the vehicles to be resilient to market dynamics. We are able to face different market scenarios. We must be ready for unexpected scenarios. The market has seen some hesitation in recent times. The GEO market is quite soft. In this situation, we have to be successful with institutional missions. Our work with the French MoD is a great example of this.”
ILS has been competing in the GEO market for many years. Pysher talked about the importance of being able to offer capabilities that involved the launch of LEO satellites, as well as large GEO satellites. Pysher admitted that if ILS stayed focused on GEO missions “we would be hurting”. He also talked about the importance of rideshare going forward. “I think we will see a lot of rideshare going forward. I think operators will have to find ways to work together to share launch services. There will be a reset. I don’t think it will come back to 20-25 orders. We will see a balance of missions (LEOs/GEOs/MEOs) as well as rideshare. Dropping someone off at LEO and then heading to GEO, for example.”
Bruno talked about ULA’s re-acquaintance of the commercial market has and how this had been a big challenge. ULA is coming back into the commercial market at what Bruno described as “exciting time for the industry”. Examining the state of the market, he said, “Are spacecraft going to get larger or smaller? The answer is ‘yes’, they need to get larger and smaller. We needed to take large payloads, as well as have more agility to take smaller satellites.”
Bruno, unlike Shotwell also believes the GEO market could come back. He added, “The GEO segment has been flat. We are seeing a pause in the GEO market as the customer base is getting an understanding what route customers will take with LEO. I think there will be a reset in the GEO market. GEO is not going away. We will see LEO constellations appear, but I think we will see a resurgence in the GEO market down the line.”
One of the new players on the block is Blue Origin which is looking to become more of a player in the launch market. Its new CEO Bob Smith said the space industry has moved relatively slow in recent years for technology adoption. But, he now believes that is changing. He highlighted the fact that small satellites are becoming more popular. He says companies like Blue Origin need to accommodate a variety of payloads. “I think there is a reset in the industry. We will make investments differently than we have in the past. There will be different pricing and more availability. In the launch business, you always want safety and reliability, price. How do you make that happen?”
Smith also spoke about human spaceflight, similar to Shotwell and was as equally optimistic about this trend as Shotwell was, adding that he thought human spaceflight by 2020 will happen.
Fu Zhiheng, EVP, Great China Wall Industry Corporation said the company was set for a record breaking year, and like other highlighted the importance of institutional market as fueling demand for its services. He is optimistic that China Great Wall would still see some strong traction in emerging markets, as well as China.
It wouldn’t be a launch panel if resusablity was not discussed in some form. There were some interesting opinions on this debate. Pysher said, “Customers don’t care about re-usabiilty. They just care about successful launch of their business plans.” Shotwell shared with the audience some of SpaceX’s learnings and targets when it comes to reusability. She added, “The vehicles are coming back in much better shape than we anticipated (reusability). This has been a surprise to us. Ultimately, we want to be able to turn around a rocket in 24 hours. The first one took us six months. The last one was around four weeks. I do want to get to a point where we don’t take four weeks to refurb a rocket.” Smith added, “You need to stay consistent with your philosophy on re-usability. We want to be able to turn around those vehicles very quickly.”