The faulty strut that failed mid-flight and doomed SpaceX’s June 28 mission to resupply the International Space Station could end up costing SpaceX “hundreds of millions” in lost revenues. Meanwhile, the company’s Falcon 9 rockets will remain grounded pending the definitive results of an investigation into what caused the crash, founder Elon Musk said in a conference call with reporters Monday.
Whatever problems SpaceX faces in the months ahead, they pale in comparison to what other companies —including one of SpaceX’s key competitors—in the commercial space industry are dealing with. While SpaceX engineers work on fixing company design flaws, others in the industry—particularly Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance—are racing to overcome problems within their own companies.
Their inability to do so quickly has put something of a squeeze on the entire commercial space industry as satellite operators are forced to choose from a limited number of launch providers and launch vehicles. And, while the grounding of SpaceX’s rockets might seem like a rare opportunity for the company’s competitors to steal a bit of its market share—if not its thunder—no other company in the industry is well-positioned to do so.
United Launch Alliance, or ULA, remains SpaceX’s biggest competition in the U.S. and formerly the U.S. military’s only certified launch provider for sensitive (and lucrative) national security-related payloads. Rising launch costs and dwindling space and defense budgets have put pressure on ULA’s leadership to trim costs and streamline their operations in recent years, all while SpaceX significantly undercut ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV rockets on price.
All that, coupled with ongoing political controversy surrounding ULA’s dependence on Russian rocket engines, have triggered both a leadership shuffle and a strategic realignment within the company as it attempts to restructure itself. Though Boeing (BA) and Lockheed Martin (LMT) shared half a billion in profits generated by ULA last year, the companies have increased pressure on ULA to boost its competitiveness with SpaceX, all while tightening the purse strings. “They’ve had us on a very short leash,” ULA CEO Tory Bruno told the Wall Street Journal recently.
ULA is lobbying Congress to allow the company to continue buying Russian rocket engines for a few more years, at least until an American-made replacement can be developed. Without those engines, Bruno has worried publicly that the monopoly it once held over U.S. military satellite launches could pass to SpaceX, which won certification to fly some national security payloads earlier this year.
Outside of ULA and SpaceX, launch options for customers with large satellite payloads remain slim, at least in the near-term. Virginia-based Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket remains grounded following its own launch mishap in October of last year. France’s Arianespace enjoys a solid track record for reliability but already has a packed launch manifest that stretches several years into the future. International Launch Services’ Proton rocket has endured a handful of launch failures in recent years and also maintains a lengthy backlog.
That leaves SpaceX customers scheduled to launch in the next few months in something of a bind. “It’s not like you can just jump to another launch vehicle,” says Richard M. Rocket, co-founder and CEO of space industry analysis firm NewSpace Global. Launch contracts are typically inked years in advance of the launch date, and payloads must be designed to some degree to be compatible with the rocket that’s going to launch them, he says. Additionally, the majority of launch costs are typically paid up front, creating a huge problem for customers whose launch dates are delayed.
The amount of time it takes to prep a payload and rocket for launch makes it very difficult to leverage excess rocket inventory into near-term launch availability. “Generally speaking, the launch industry has more capacity than it needs,” says Carissa Christensen, founder and managing partner at defense, space, and technology consultancy Tauri Group. “But that’s different than having a vehicle available next month that can do what you need it to do.”
As such, those customers with near-term launch dates aboard a SpaceX rocket could be hurting as bad as SpaceX themselves, as they now have tens of millions invested in satellite hardware that for the time being is trapped on the ground. Although SpaceX’s launch schedule prior to the June launch mishap wasn’t set in stone, customers affected by the rolling delays in SpaceX’s manifest include French communications firm Eutelsat, Luxembourg-based satellite operator SES, Bermuda-based Asia Broadcast Satellite, Japan’s JSAT, and New Jersey-based Orbcomm. NASA also has at least one satellite and two more ISS missions on SpaceX’s near-term launch schedule.
Some customers may go looking for a different company to move their satellites into orbit, but most will be forced to wait it out and shoulder the associated costs, NewSpace’s Rocket says. It all points to a larger dysfunction within the commercial space launch market itself as more and more millions flood into small satellite and commercial space companies.
While many have taken the recent SpaceX failure as a reminder about the difficulties surrounding spaceflight, it’s also a sign that in order for the industry to reach its full potential the market needs to provide more launch options and greater frequency. “We need to have SpaceX and we need to have competitors to SpaceX launching regularly,” he says. “Once a month isn’t going to cut it.”