Arianespace sales top SpaceX in 2015

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The competition heats up: According to Arianespace’s CEO Stephane Israel, the company signed more new launch contracts in 2015 than SpaceX, despite their competitor’s much larger PR footprint.

At a briefing here outlining Evry, France-based Arianespace 2015 record and plans for 2016, Israel sought to portray Arianespace as once again in the driver’s seat when it comes to commercial launches. After drawing even with Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX in 2014, with nine commercial orders each, Arianespace’s count for 2015 showed its Ariane 5 rocket winning 14 contracts for geostationary-orbit satellites, compared to nine for SpaceX and one each for International Launch Services of Reston, Virginia, which markets Russia’s Proton; and for the Atlas 5 rocket of United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Colorado.

Arianespace’s count includes one undisclosed customer. Unless it’s identified, it will not be included in SpaceNews’s annual count of firm contract awards. Of the 13 satellites remaining, two are for Europe’s meteorological satellite organization, Eumetsat, and cannot be considered commercial wins. In addition to the geostationary-satellite contracts, Arianespace in 2015 booked the largest single launch contract, to use 21 Russian Soyuz rockets — including the Europeanized version operated from Europe’s spaceport — to launch the OneWeb low-orbiting broadband constellation.

Israel also spent a lot of time at the briefing dealing with reporters’ questions about SpaceX, where he poo-pooed the significance of the Falcon 9 first stage landing, noting repeatedly the accepted wisdom that the stress of launch limits the re-usability of rocket stages. This suggests that Arianespace’s next generation rocket, Ariane 6, is not likely to have this capability. Considering that its launch price is now estimated to be between $90 and $100 million, I wonder how they will compete with a reusable Falcon 9 that will likely cost a third this price.

That the Russians only signed one new contract for its Proton last year, as noted in the quote above, also tells us that SpaceX is getting most of its market share from the Russians. If the company should continue to lower its costs and increase its launch rate over time, they will then start stealing market share from others. Thus, Arianespace’s CEO makes a very big mistake if he takes their competitive threat lightly.


  • Edward

    My thoughts for a long time are that SpaceX’s competitors are trying to reassure investors and customers that they are still competitive with SpaceX, though perhaps not on price.

    There are limits to the lifting capacity that SpaceX has, as some rockets can lift heavier payloads than Falcon. SpaceX is not yet competing for those payloads. Some payloads are too light for SpaceX to be cost competitive, which is why the article has the comments about Arianespace’s Vega launch vehicle.

    Arianespace bragged about their cadence. They clearly believe that SpaceX does not have the ability to launch more than a dozen payloads in a year, since their own record is 12 launches. Even if SpaceX is the low price company, Arianespace may be counting on being the alternate provider for those who can’t wait in a long line for a Falcon to become available.

    However, a few years ago, SpaceX placed a rocket on a pad, and within 24 hours had it fueled and completed a practice countdown. Since most rockets spend weeks sitting on a pad before launch, this suggests to me that SpaceX is hoping to eventually be able to launch several rockets each month from each of its pads.

    The next few weeks will tell us whether the stresses have left the Falcon structure and its engines in a condition to be used again. If so, then the other companies will soon be scrambling to catch up. If not, then SpaceX’s test firing of the engines will tell us whether the company has found an easy way to recover the expensive engines for reuse. If so, then the other companies will still be scrambling to catch up.

    I hope that no company is taking the competitive threat lightly, and several have announced ideas, plans, or test articles for improving costs and reusability — if only to reuse the expensive engines. However, Arianespace is structured so that too many cooks are in the kitchen, and getting changes is a process of design-by-committee to approve which countries benefit and which lose from design or process changes. They are not currently structured to be competitive but to satisfy the contradictory political needs of several countries. Resting on their laurels risks much in today’s version of the space race.

  • “Considering that its launch price is now estimated to be between $90 and $100 million, I wonder how they will compete with a reusable Falcon 9 that will likely cost a third this price.”

    They won’t.

  • Edward

    Blair wrote that Arianespace won’t be able to compete with a reusable, low-cost Falcon 9.

    Although it is a major consideration for most customers, price is not the only consideration or form of competition.

    ULA emphasizes that they are the most reliable. Several military and government renascence customers desire this over a lower price, because their payloads are precious — expensive, unique, and hard or impossible to replace.

    Arianespace is emphasizing schedule and availability. This is desirable for companies that want or need their communication satellites (or other revenue satellites) online sooner rather than later.

    However, SpaceX seems to be eager to improve both of these business attributes, as well as lower the price. I suspect that for the next decade or so the competition from SpaceX will motivate other companies to also improve their cost, quality, and schedule performances. We have already seen this with announcements that some companies are researching ways to reduce their prices by reusing launch hardware, such as the expensive engines.

    Red Adair said something like, “I can do it fast; I can do it well; I can do it cheap. Choose two.” However, he was able to improve all three of these attributes over time, but for any given job one or two of the three had to be sacrificed. The same is true in most or all businesses, but the space business seems to be on the verge of improving all three due to the heating up of the competition. Launch providers that cannot adapt to the improving conditions will find themselves out of the business; those that do may become the next industry leader — the one to beat.

    Generally, though, I agree with Blair. For two or three decades, Arianespace has been the “go-to” launch provider for many satellite operators, but SpaceX could be taking that privilege away from them, if only for the next decade or so.

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