An aggressive SpaceX puts commercial space rivals on notice

August 26, 2014, 5:30 PM UTC
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying an Asiasat satellite launches in Cape Canaveral, Fla. on August 7, 2014.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying an AsiaSat satellite launches in Cape Canaveral, Fla. on August 7, 2014.
Courtesy: SpaceX

Last week, rumors concerning the value of Elon Musk’s SpaceX rippled across the Web after tech startup-watcher TechCrunch reported that private investment in the company valued it at “somewhere south of $10 billion.” SpaceX quickly quashed the rumor. “SpaceX is not currently raising any funding nor has any external valuation of that magnitude or higher been done,” a company spokesman said in a statement. And so SpaceX ended the week just as it began it, despite having briefly enjoyed the status of a $10 billion industry behemoth.

The private spaceflight industry is so opaque and SpaceX’s cards are so closely held that it is difficult to get a read on the company, especially using the venture capital rumor mill. Nor can one necessarily judge SpaceX based on what the company says about itself. (Elon Musk says that the company is headed to Mars in the next decade. SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell boasts that by 2100 the company will dominate transportation across the solar system. Between them is a 58.5-ton payload of ambition.) Perhaps the best way to evaluate SpaceX and its potential value isn’t in dollar figures or in audacious claims, but by observing what the upstart space firm is already doing to its competition in the commercial space industry.

That competition—mostly European space launch providers like France’s Arianespace (partially owned by French aerospace giant Airbus) and International Launch Services (a U.S.-Russia joint venture that launches satellites aboard Russian Proton launch technology)—has largely held a monopoly on commercial space launches since the U.S. retreated from the industry in the early 1980s. Though SpaceX derives a chunk of its income from NASA in exchange for resupplying the International Space Station, the $200 billion satellite industry makes up a huge and growing chunk of SpaceX’s nearly 40-strong launch manifest through 2018.

By offering space launch services at prices that in some cases undercut the traditional launch industry by half, SpaceX has managed significant market penetration in a relatively short period of time. It has a strong safety record and industry confidence in its core services is growing. Over the summer the company cleared the path toward construction of its own dedicated launch facility in southern Texas while also experimenting with reusable rocket stage technology that could reduce launch costs by an order of magnitude.

If SpaceX’s competitors in Europe and elsewhere believe all this to be nothing but hype, they have a strange way of showing it. To even the casual observer, SpaceX’s competitors appear to be scrambling.

In January, the president of the French national space agency (and former Arianespace CEO) wrote an op-ed in France’s Le Monde detailing all the things SpaceX has done right, calling on the European space industry to adapt as quickly as possible. In February, Arianespace’s current chairman and CEO Stephane Israel told the European Space Agency that it may need additional subsidies from European governments in order to remain a viable competitor, citing the arrival of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 medium-lift rocket as the cause of its competitive headaches. At the Berlin Airshow in July, Airbus Group CEO Tom Enders urged Europe to completely overhaul its space launcher industry, mentioning SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk by name. “Musk gives us the opportunity to shake up what has been quite a successful European space industry,” Enders told Reuters. “We either much improve and integrate our industrial structures or we’ll become irrelevant.”

It’s not just talk coming out of the global space industry. In July Arianespace cut its launch prices in an effort to minimize SpaceX’s market advantage, though its prices are reportedly still nowhere near as low as SpaceX’s. Airbus and Safran, a French propulsion systems maker, have entered into a 50-50 joint venture aimed at designing a new, less costly rocket for Europe. Several European space officials and potential future customers have called for a rethinking and possible redesign of Arianespace’s new Ariane 6 rocket.

Back in the U.S., competitors that have traditionally enjoyed non-competitive launch markets have found themselves forced to respond to SpaceX. Earlier this year SpaceX sued the United States Air Force over an $11 billion contract awarded to Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance (ULA) for a block of military satellite launches. SpaceX claims the contract was awarded through a bidding process that was not competitive, and a federal judge has ordered a review of the dealings. Even as it was suing the Air Force, SpaceX still managed to receive USAF certification to launch military hardware aboard it Falcon 9 rocket.

“While the European Space Agency, Arianespace, Safran may not have taken SpaceX seriously before, those entities certainly are taking SpaceX seriously now,” says Richard David, co-founder and CEO of commercial space industry analysis firm NewSpace Global, whose global ranking of private space companies places SpaceX at the very top. “NSG analysts track around 700 companies worldwide, and it’s not just about SpaceX and its European launch competitors. But SpaceX is ranked number one for a reason.”

The fact that absolutely no one in the business of launching payloads into space has been able to ignore SpaceX as it piles success upon success says more about the company and its future prospects than any rumored dollar valuation. And just as important to SpaceX’s future prospects is the global aerospace industry’s inability to respond. The high costs and myriad challenges inherent in the commercial spaceflight industry—this is, quite literally, rocket science—means that most of SpaceX’s competitors are either joint ventures like ULA and Airbus-Safran or large, bureaucratic, multinationals like Arianespace, which counts two dozen major shareholders from nearly a dozen European states all asserting influence and competing interests into the company calculus.

“They’re already responding, or trying to figure out the best way to respond,” says Kate Maliga, an industry analyst at aerospace and defense analysts Tauri Group, of SpaceX’s competitors. “But it’s hard, especially with the complicated structure of European governments and industry. There’s very little they can do in the next year or two, but they feel like they need to respond and they will try.”

SpaceX may seem to be riding as its competitors struggle to adapt, but the company has by no means conquered the industry, Maliga says. Satellite companies are by nature risk-averse, and no company wants to have only one launch provider handling all of its multimillion-dollar hardware. Though SpaceX continues to build industry confidence, Arianespace already has a decades-long established record of launching successfully and on time—the latter something SpaceX has struggled with. For satellite television providers broadcasting the World Cup, for instance, a delay in launching a satellite can cost many more millions than the price disparity between Arianespace and SpaceX, Maliga says. Which means SpaceX’s successes do not spell doom for its more expensive competitors, at least not yet.

“I don’t see anyone being an absolute existential threat to anyone at this point,” Jon Beland, a senior analyst at defense and aerospace industry consultancy Avascent, says. “The launch industry has historically undergone cycles where new entrants enter the field and shuffle the cards around. It’s still too early to tell.”