Monday, July 23, 2018

The World Can't Keep Up with America's Space Companies

The stories have been hitting the techy press every now and then.  SpaceX, with Blue Origin on its heels, has so disrupted the launch industry that the Russians and the European Space Agency are being squeezed out of the launch business.  From that first article linked, about the Russian industry in 2017, it starts out saying the Russians might be able to catch SpaceX if they'd just stop advancing.
As recently as 2013, Russia's venerable fleet of rockets commanded nearly half of the global share of the commercial launch market. Since then, the emergence of other players, most notably SpaceX, has considerably shrunk the once-dominant Russian position.

This year, although Russia has made 17 successful orbital launches, only about a third of them have flown for paying customers other than the Russian government or the International Space Station. By contrast, SpaceX has made 16 launches this year, 11 of which have been for commercial customers.
There are persistent rumors that the Russians have essentially surrendered the market, saying what's left is too small to go after.  The shift away from Russia is vividly depicted in this graphic of world wide launch shares. In 2010, the game was entirely Russia and the ESA.  Starting in 2013, a light blue share appears - SpaceX.  This year it's SpaceX, then the ESA with about half of their load and Russia with less than 10% of the world's launches. 

Which leaves the ESA and their flagship Ariane rockets.
But times change. Like the rest of the aerospace world—including the Russians and traditional US companies like Boeing, Aerojet, and Lockheed Martin—Europe must now confront titanic changes in the global launch industry. By aggressively pushing low-cost, reusable launch technologies, SpaceX has bashed down the traditional order. Blue Origin, too, promises more of the same within a few years for larger satellites. Beyond these prominent new space companies serving larger satellites, dozens of more modest ventures are pursuing innovative strategies like 3-D printing to slash costs and snag a share of the small satellite market from traditional providers.
The ESA, like the Russians, are developing new launch vehicles with the intent to reduce costs.  The Ariane 6 is scheduled to fly in 2020 and is projected to reduce launch costs to about 40 to 50% of the costs of the 20 year old Ariane 5 while maintaining its lift capability.  Unlike SpaceX and Blue Origin, the ESA is not going to make the Ariane 6 reusable.  The reason?  The market's too small.
It will not be reusable, of course, and it can never reach the theoretically super-low cost of a fully reusable Falcon 9. But having eight to 10 launches a year, from an economic standpoint, simply does not justify the expense of developing and flying a reusable rocket, European officials say. Two dozen or more launches a year might, but that is not the scale Europe operates at or seeks.

Truthfully, if Europe ever did develop a reusable rocket, one that could fly all the missions in a year, this would be unhelpful politically. What would the engine and booster factories sprinkled across Europe do if they built one rocket and then had 11 months off? The member states value the jobs too much. This is one difference between rocket-by-government and rocket-by-billionaire programs. [Bold added - SiG]
"Rocket by billionaire"?  How about rocket by private sector that's driven to optimize service for all customers?   The ESA says they're not interested in the big dreams that Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos share, of lots of people living and working in space.  They have no interest in manned rockets to the moon or mars; they're happy with a tidy little business that they want to keep to themselves.  They say, in essence, their launches are more expensive but their rockets are higher quality, saying “We don’t sell a Tata.” - comparing the Falcon 9 to the famously crappy Indian car.  They also make allegations that SpaceX is subsidized by the US  Something I've heard about the ESA for as long as I can recall. 

To quote from the ARS piece,
Even, so, Charmeau rejects comparisons to SpaceX, because he maintains that the company is heavily subsidized by the US government. There used to be some substance to this claim. Without a critical NASA contract a decade ago for cargo delivery to the International Space Station, the Falcon 9 rocket probably would not exist today. However, as the analysis above shows, the majority of missions SpaceX flies are now for non-governmental customers. Moreover, there can be no question that, effectively, ArianeGroup is subsidized by its member governments.

But Charmeau persists with this argument today. The US government, he says, props up SpaceX by paying inflated rates for launches.

“The price for a US customer is not the same as the price for a commercial customer,” he said. “You can call it what you want, but that is a fact. It is known that the Air Force has procured launches at $100 million, when on the commercial market the price is well below for the same service.”

This is true. However, the US military says it pays more for launches because of its mission assurance requirements, which require extra steps to be taken for preparing and attaching the payload alongside myriad other system checks to ensure a safe ride to space for costly national security payloads. What does Charmeau think of this explanation?

“I would be surprised if SpaceX explained to commercial customers that they deliver bullshit to them,” he replied. “I would be extremely surprised by that.”
The article is an interesting read, if nothing else for the arrogance displayed by the ESA folks like that last quote.  If the customers wanted SpaceX to nestle their satellite in the rarest, most expensive goose down in the world, and wanted to pay for it, why should they not provide it?  It's not bullshit to provide what the customer contracts for and pays for.  SpaceX can (and should) tell the customers "you don't need to do that", but the customer is always right.  I've never been in the military, but even I've heard "there's the right way, the wrong way, and the (insert service name here) way".  Why should I think that doesn't apply to launches? 



  1. "Truthfully, if Europe ever did develop a reusable rocket, one that could fly all the missions in a year, this would be unhelpful politically. What would the engine and booster factories sprinkled across Europe do if they built one rocket and then had 11 months off?"

    I thought French workers were required to take 11 months of vacation per year, due to government mandate.

    1. That hasn't taken effect yet. I think they said 2020 because they need to ramp up for it. When it takes effect, the population of actual French heritage will work the month of Ramadan, while the immigrants will work the anniversary month of their arrival. At that point, 1/12 of the population will work every month.

      The rest of the population will be free to protest, burn, or whatever. It leaves a small chance the immigrants won't slaughter all the native, French citizens since they will be providing all gubmint services one month out of the year.

      Did I need my sarcasm font for that?

  2. ESA had always been an arrogant bunch. I've heard from people that went to Guiana for a launch, and were treated like sh1t by ESA.

    It's not very smart to treat customers paying $100,000,000 for a launch like second and third-class interlopers to your operations.

    1. ESA will be a footnote in history. The process is already underway and they're doing it to themselves.

  3. And now NASA is taking every possible step to keep the F9 system from being man-rated for NASA contracts, rather than working with SpaceX to help. Nice job, NASA.

    ESA and that other EU aerospace company wouldn't even exist without massive government interference.

  4. Fascinating graphics. Thanks!

    The typical provincial Euro-weenie fox-and-sour-grapes comments are de rigueur for Euro-weenies.
    That's why they're known worldwide as "You're-A-Peons".
    If you can't look down your nose at the guys kicking your @$$, you're not one of them.

  5. In space matters as well as 99% of other topics the rapidly disappearing euro-pee-ons are arrogant and wrong. I’m surprised the person didn’t tout how good ESA makes mooslems feel about themselves.

  6. Instead of the Vietnam War the US could have spent (probably less money) and had bases on the Moon in the 1960s - there were credible paths forward using the tech available at the time... but why? It was pointless then and it's pointless now. The ESA people are essentially correct - without military launches there's simply no market, the technology that currently exists can do anything that's really needed... making the generous assumption we need loads of soon to be space junk for human beings to manage their lives on the planet.

  7. Nice piece. To me the relevant number is the cost per kilogram to a given orbital height as a function of probability of launch failure. If you're trying to go from a 1 in a thousand failure probability to a 1 in a hundred thousand failure probability you're damn right you're going to pay more, a lot more. That is what military customers are paying for.