Arianespace admits it is in a head-to-head competition with SpaceX

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In testimony at a hearing in the French parliament the head of Arianespace admitted that the company has been in a head-to-head competition with SpaceX for the past two years, with SpaceX grabbing half the business.

He also claimed that they think they will be able to compete with SpaceX, even if it succeeds in recovering and reusing its first stage.

Israel said Arianespace fully expects SpaceX to succeed in its attempt to recover its Falcon 9 first stage.

But that’s just the start of the challenge, he said. It remains unknown what the refurbishment costs will be compared to the cost of churning out a fresh stage from an existing production line. He said it is also unclear whether commercial fleet operators will immediately accept placing $200 million telecommunications satellites on a rocket with a refurbished stage.

Finally, he said, flying a reusable stage means sacrificing first-stage performance so that enough energy is available to power it back to its recovery point. That power is thus unavailable for the mission, which is one reason why Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX thus far has attempted to recover its stages only on low-orbit missions, not for missions to geostationary transfer orbit, where most commercial satellites operate.

All true, but if Arianespace sits on its hands because of these facts it will eventually lose. It needs to rise to the challenge that SpaceX poses, not poo-poo the challenge.

One comment

  • Edward

    In an almost related topic, this note is for Kelly Starks:

    Kelly and I have disagreed about the way that SpaceX does its engineering. Kelly says that they use unorthodox methods, but I insist on seeing some evidence that their methods are unorthodox. Recently, my father pointed me to the following article on the topic. It seems that SpaceX likes to reinvent the wheel, believing that the current off-the-shelf versions are more expensive than SpaceX can make for themselves.

    Engineering leans heavily on the principle that if it works, don’t fix it. SpaceX seemingly runs counter to that principle, in that reinventing hardware that has been fleshed out over decades of use seems not only unnecessary but hazardous, because SpaceX will now learn the hard lessons that the existing vendors learned long ago (and may learn them the hard way, through failed launches and lost payloads). Is this necessary? Is it too hazardous? Is it advantageous? Is it worth the risks?

    The economics of manufacturing is an area in which “broken” can go unseen for long periods of time. Something seems fine, even though it is expensive, so no one fixes the expense of the product. This results in a smaller customer base than would be available for a less expensive product.

    This is true for access to space. Getting to space is difficult, dangerous, and expensive. Launch companies are now trying to reduce the expense while making it look easy yet not increasing the danger. They are trying to fix the broken economics of spaceflight. Quite the engineering trick.

    As Red Adair is said to have said, “I can do it fast; I can do it cheap; I can do it well. Choose two.” These are typical engineering trade-offs, and they apply in spaceflight, too. Over time Adair learned to get better in all three areas (though there was always a choice to make of the two trade-offs that were more important to the customer). The space-access industry can improve in all three areas, too.

    SpaceX is not the only company working on making space access easier and less expensive. Rocket Lab Ltd. is trying some innovations to do the same for small satellites:

    Their innovations are a battery powered turbo-pump, additive manufacturing (3-D printing — not exactly untried, but fairly new in the industry), and early containerization of payload in the fairing (for storage and ease of integration onto the rocket).

    Another company working to reduce costs and difficulty getting to space is Vulcan Aerospace (Stratolaunch).

    “Once transportation to low Earth orbit is inexpensive and frequent, people will be able to assemble spacecraft in microgravity that are so massive they would be impossible to build on the ground and send into orbit”

    “Compared to the size of most of the airplanes we have built, this is an ‘aircraft carrier’” (A humorous comment, as it is actually a “rocket carrier”).

    It even seems that the SABRE air-breathing rocket engine, which may be used on the proposed single-stage to orbit Skylon, could be a viable concept.

    Bigelow is prepared to put their innovative inflatable space habitats (invented by NASA, licensed by Bigelow) in orbit for use as destinations for manned presence in space, such as space research stations and space tourist hotels.

    There was even a proposal, a decade ago, for a space elevator using nanotubes to create a ribbon of threads as the elevator “shaft.” Placing a payload into orbit with this device should be very inexpensive. It has yet to be worked out how such a structure remains intact with all the uncontrolled space junk, which could be why I haven’t heard much about it since a Cosmos and an Iridium collided in 2009.

    Whether it works to do the unorthodox, to reinvent the wheel, to build behemoth “aircraft carrier” sized aircraft, to go single stage to orbit, to launch relatively inexpensive inflatable space stations, to use an elevator, or to do whatever it is that Arianespace is doing to reduce costs, we will have to judge that over the course of the next decade or so.

    The exciting part of aerospace this decade is the variety of concepts proposed and tried. It is about as exciting as in the 1960s, except back then most of the concepts did not leave the NASA laboratories — and the inflatable space habitats wouldn’t have, either, if it weren’t for the public’s push for commercializing space. Right now, space habitats are being tested on orbit, Falcons are launching at low prices, and hardware is being built for other flight tests.

    The main difference between now and the 1960s (or the 1990s, for that matter) is that we are no longer relying upon NASA and its master, Congress, to decide what to do or to put in space. We are doing it through free market capitalism, not centrally controlled management. We the People are able to get what *we* want, not just what the government wants or is willing to do.

    This is the argument that Arianespace is having with ESA and European governments, right now; each wants control over the Ariane 6 rockets, and it is in the balance whether free market forces (Arianespace control) or central planning (government control) wins.

    As with all other new free market ideas, we do not yet know which companies and their ideas will succeed and which ones will fail. Maybe SpaceX is doing things wrong and they will fail, but if they are doing things right enough, they may be the competition for everyone else to beat. We need to be willing to let the companies work out their own methods and to let market forces choose which ones, orthodox or not, are best for the market.

    We already know that the current ways (central planning and control) are too expensive and inefficient for the economical use of outer space.

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