September 17, 2012
Credit: Credit: SpaceX
Amy Svitak Paris
Commercial space launch cognoscenti estimate that, since 2009, nearly a billion dollars in new orders has gone to a single U.S. company developing a rocket that has yet to be flown.
The catch: while it is common in the commercial aviation world to get a backlog of orders for platforms that have yet to fly, it is unheard of in the space launch industry.
Over the past two years, Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has proved its Falcon 9 medium-lift rocket can deliver unmanned payloads to low Earth orbit on at least two occasions. But a major modification to that launch vehicle is under way, including a new Merlin engine, stretched fuel tanks and a wider payload fairing. In other words, while the name is mostly the same, the actual Falcon 9 variant that SpaceX has scheduled to begin carrying telecom satellites to geostationary orbit by mid-2013 is still only in development and not expected to undergo flight trials until the second quarter of next year.
“If my estimate is correct, it's close to a billion dollars of business that SpaceX has acquired in the commercial launch market—both the LEO [low-Earth-orbit] system and the GEO system—without really a flight record,” says Frank McKenna, president of Reston, Va.-based International Launch Services (ILS), which manages commercial launches on Russian-built Proton rockets. “It's probably a first in the commercial launch industry,” he said during the World Satellite Business Week conference here Sept. 11.
Given SpaceX's advertised price of around $59 million per launch, McKenna says the rest of industry has lost about 40% of new orders it might have reaped if SpaceX was not in the game. But that was before the world's second-largest satellite fleet operator by revenue, Luxembourg-based SES, ordered three more Falcon 9 launches starting in 2015. By 2010 SES had already become the first major commercial operator to commit to SpaceX, ordering a Falcon 9 launch for the SES-8 satellite to be lofted into geostationary orbit in July 2013.
“What we have seen in the light-to-medium market is extraordinarily aggressive competition brought on by SpaceX and Falcon,” McKenna says. “I think that has resulted in fairly significant percentage drops in the prices of GEO and LEO launches [over the past three years.]”
Falcon 9 is even having an impact in Europe, where officials have pointed to SpaceX as a rationale for reviewing current launch policies and hastening plans by the European Space Agency to develop a more flexible, affordable and less-commercially dependent version of the Ariane 5.