Aerospace rebel SpaceX, against all odds, has become the first private company to launch into orbit, build the world’s largest rocket, became the first to land and reuse rockets, and recently shuttled crew for NASA. Their success, however, is having a ripple-effect around the world. With its disruptive innovation, SpaceX has caught the entire launch industry off-guard. For an industry that had long been accustomed to slow and cautious steps forward, SpaceX has been dancing around the competition for a decade…but now they’re running to catch up. Here is a look at how the competition is striking back.
Ariane 6 / Prometheus
Courtesy of Gdipasquale1. Unedited https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en
Prior to the rise of SpaceX, Arianespace was a leading commercial launcher of satellites with its reliable and relatively affordable Ariane series rockets, the latest of which is the Ariane 5. Arianespace intended to introduce the upgraded Ariane 5 ME in 2018, which would feature a new, cheaper, upper stage engine called the Vinci. This aimed to reduce launch costs by about 20%.
However, by 2015 it was clear that SpaceX was undercutting the planned Ariane 5 ME long before its debut…something had to be done. Arianespace abruptly cancelled the Ariane 5 ME and focused all of its resources onto the more advanced Ariane 6. Ariane 6 uses the same Vinci upper stage but also features a further upgraded Vulcain 2.1 lower stage engine that utilizes a 3D-printed gas generator and simplified combustion chamber design. Ariane 6 aims to reduce launch costs by 50% from the Ariane 5. The first launch will likely take place next year.
Europe is also moving forward with a brand-new engine, called Prometheus. Prometheus uses methane fuel (like Spacex’s Raptor), can be used on both the first and second stage (also like Raptor), and aims to reduce the cost to manufacture by 90%…or just $1.1 million per engine (about the same as Raptor as well). This engine could power the successor to Ariane 6 as soon as 2030. Research into reuse of the payload fairings and the rocket’s first stage has also commenced, but this likely will have to wait until after 2030. Nonetheless, with the cheaper Prometheus engine and partial reuse, Europe aims to again halve the cost of spaceflight over the Ariane 6 in the next decade.
The United Launch Alliance, or ULA, was once the dominant launch provider for NASA and the Pentagon. An effective monopoly, it was known for its Atlas V, Delta, and Delta IV Heavy launch vehicles. These rockets, while reliable, were insanely expensive. As a consequence of this expensive monopoly, the ULA had very little presence in the commercial launch industry, effectively having ceded the industry to Russia and Europe. This left the ULA very dependent on the US government for business.
Then came SpaceX, which not only managed to capture commercial launches, but sued the Air Force and forced the Pentagon to allow competitive bidding for government contracts. With this lawsuit, the ULA found itself in deep trouble. Originally, they intended to compete by offering discounted bulk-buys of rocket cores to the government, but this was not enough to compete with SpaceX’s rock bottom pricing.
Instead, the ULA consolidated its product lines, ending production of the Delta IV and Delta II (they kept the more capable Delta IV Heavy and cheaper Atlas V), closed three of its five launch facilities to reduce overhead, and pressed suppliers to cut costs. However, even this was not enough to compete in the now hyper-competitive launch environment.
For this reason, the ULA is wrapping up development of a brand-new rocket called Vulcan. The Vulcan will be capable enough to replace both the Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy, allowing the company to further reduce overhead and consolidate into a single product line. The Vulcan will feature a pair of American-made BE-4 engines that are significantly cheaper than the Russian RD -180 used on the Atlas V. The new solid rocket boosters, supplied by Northrop, cost less and are more efficient than current models, and the upper stage will use a newer version of the RL-10C, called the RL-10C-X. This modernized engine utilizes additive manufacturing, reducing engine part count by over 50% and making the engine significantly cheaper to manufacture.
The ULA is also researching ways of reusing parts of the Vulcan, in particular, the payload fairing and the first stage engine block. This reuse technology, which they call “SMART reuse” would see the first stage engines detach from the main stage and deploy an inflatable heat shield for reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. Once reentered, the engines would deploy parachutes to slow their descent so that a helicopter could scoop them out of the air before they fell into the ocean. The ULA argues that this reuse technology is actually superior to SpaceX’s method of landing the entire first stage. They contend that it requires less upfront capital investment and has less payload penalty, while still allowing reuse of the highest value part of the stage.
Doors are Opening
This is very exciting news for companies that require satellites as part of their business operations, as well as for consumers who will soon have greater access to the benefits that space provides. This innovation should be applauded as we can all share in the benefits they provide in the 21st century. SpaceX has opened the door to a new way of thinking about designing and building rockets, and this new thinking is quite literally igniting a revolution in space exploration technology. In part 2 we will examine the effect that SpaceX is having in Asia on launch providers in Japan, China, and beyond.