The White Knight is talking backwards

Launchers, launchers everywhere;
Demand is mostly flat.
But customers fear bottlenecks.
What should we make of that?

SpaceX’s Sept. 1 pre-flight Falcon 9 failure and the five-month grounding of Russia’s Proton rocket — assuming a November return to flight — highlight how strange the commercial launch market continues to be.

The main commercial business is launching telecommunications satellites into geostationary orbit. This totals maybe 25 units in a good year. The past couple of years have been less than good.

Sir John Tenniel’s illustration of Alice and the White Knight. Credit: WikiCommons

Sir John Tenniel’s illustration of Alice and the White Knight. Credit: WikiCommons

There are six vehicles engaged, to varying degrees, in serving this market:

Arianespace’s Ariane 5 typically carries two satellites per launch and accounts for one-third to one-half of the total, sometimes more, in a given year. Call that 10 satellites of the 25 for Ariane, on five commercial launches.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is challenging Ariane 5 with lower prices and performance improvements and the still-undelivered promise of a high launch cadence. The future Falcon Heavy is designed to lift the heaviest telecommunications satellites. Pencil in SpaceX for eight commercial satellite launches per year.

Russia’s Proton, marketed by International Launch Services of the United States, has suffered quality issues in recent years, lessening its commercial appeal, especially now that SpaceX is viewed as an alternative.

Proton builder Khrunichev Space Center has been showing a more commercial mindset, which may account for the prudence of grounding the vehicle since June’s anomaly even though the mission succeeded in orbiting an Intelsat satellite. Proton can easily handle six or seven commercial missions per year if it maintains its health.

Japan’s H-2A rocket, now more directly managed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, may be able to increase its launch pace and reduce prices. Assume MHI conducts two commercial missions per year.

United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 has mainly priced itself out of the market, with ULA preferring the U.S. government business, where a launch service can actually make money. But Atlas reliability is second to none, and both ULA and Atlas builder Lockheed Martin have talked about reducing costs. Assign Atlas one commercial satellite per year.

China Great Wall Industry Corp. cannot bid its Long March rocket for most commercial satellites because U.S. policy banning U.S. satellite parts from export to China. But China offers customers, mainly from developing nations, a bundled package including the satellite and the launch.

From a launch-service provider’s point of view, a government-funded vanity satellite is just as much of a commercial customer as SES or Intelsat. Assign China three per year.

The total for these six rockets: 30 per year. Shuffle the numbers as you wish, it’s still far more than the commercial demand. Now add one or two commercial satellites per year being taken by India’s GSLV rocket, now in development. GSLV at least will remove Indian government satellites from the open commercial market.

And yet those waiting for SpaceX to return to flight have pretty much nowhere else to go. Arianespace is full until sometime in 2018 (although it said Sept. 8 it might be able to add a slot in 2017), Proton’s flight rate is unclear, Long March is out of bounds and MHI is struggling to increase H-2A’s launch cadence.

And serious analysts of the industry point to the fact that SpaceX, Arianespace, China, India, Russia and ULA are all designing new rockets, which history shows tend to fail more often than mature vehicles. These analysts talk about a coming launcher shortage. What an odd business this is.