Northern Sky Research

As NASA Mimics Arianespace over SpaceX, Is History Repeating Itself?

Jun 22nd, 2011

George Bernard Shaw once said that “if history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience”. NSR is not as critical about the future of the launch industry for North America and Western Europe but does extend a word of caution towards the development of next-gen launchers.

At two ends of the launch industry spectrum are Arianespace and SpaceX, quite appropriately on either side of the pond. Ariane’s plans for the future include the Ariane-5 Middle Evolution (ME) and the Ariane-6, both very much in concept stage. A decision is expected in the 2012-2013 timeframe with the EU member nations meeting to discuss the future of the launch program. There are strong camps on either side that demand Arianespace be made fully public or fully private. NSR believes that the former would only result in Ariane becoming less efficient and losing focus of its hard-earned commercial market share. The only, somewhat certain, outcome of the discussions would be minor tweaks to the supply chain, which would do little to bring down costs.

NSR questions whether NASA is making the same mistakes with SLS as ESA made with Ariane.

Press surrounding the Shuttle’s final launch is abuzz with activity regarding the replacement launcher – so far dubbed Space Launch System (SLS). U.S. Senators are vocal about encouraging “free and fair” competition for boosters, engines and components required for the SLS. However, if NASA continues along its current path, the development of the launcher may well be allotted to a select group of scattered space development centers and limited commercial players. Keeping the suppliers scattered for the sake of it would mimic Ariane’s supply chain and keep costs equally high. Even though the SLS was never intended for commercial launches, if NASA chooses to ignore this demand, it may just close the door for the launcher to ever make a commercial impact. In effect, there may just be more that is “Shuttle Derived” than just the solid boosters and engine configuration.

At the other end of the spectrum stands SpaceX, just as concerned about its image as its more-expensive European counterpart. Positioning itself as a "low cost" launcher may have helped fill the initial order book, but a single failure could result in the same backlog drying up very quickly. With 7 launches planned for 2013 and 9 for 2014, this busy schedule is at the core of the SpaceX business plan, the goal being to use frequent launches to decrease costs per launch. However, reports suggest that if NASA were to build a Falcon-9 equivalent, it could cost the U.S. taxpayer 4-10 times as much as what it has cost SpaceX. Although the environment in which Falcon was developed was very different from the one in which the SLS will operate, people of the United States are bound to question the disparity in project costs.

Bottom Line
For the future of the SLS and the American Space program, NSR believes that decisions driven by nationalistic policies and political motivations have to take a backseat.  Ignoring commercial revenues completely will only result in inefficient use of taxpayer dollars without adequate return on investment.

NSR does not rule out the possibility that success for SpaceX could change the parameters for costing launch vehicles altogether. Ariane may be relegated to the more expensive (albeit extremely reliable) option. SpaceX may have started off with a low price-point as its sales pitch but may end up being moderately priced. NASA may have already made the choice between a fully public (Shuttle), public-private partnership (Ariane) or relatively new (SpaceX) way of doing things. As for the influence of the SpaceX business model on the government decision to fund NASA’s efforts or support ESA’s decisions, only time will tell.

Information for this article was extracted from NSR's report Global Satellite Manufacturing and Launch Markets