Chair Force Engineer

Monday, October 24, 2005

More on the Rocket Monopoly

This morning, while waiting for my breakfast burrito, I picked up an Aviation Week from May 2005 with more details on the "United Launch Alliance" merger. I was incorrect about the marketing of rockets like Delta II & Zenit Sea Launch (which will remain with Boeing Launch Services) and Proton & Angara (which stay with International Launch Services.)

Aside from that, Boeing and LockMart view the merger as a way of making things more efficient (read: lay off employees and close excess facilities) because they are losing money hand-over-fist with the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. The official AIr Force position is that the merger will be good for taxpayers. Still, I would like to see some strings attached to this deal to ensure that emerging competitors like SpaceX's Falcon IX get some guaranteed launches early in their gestation. Northrop Grumman is also complaining that the monopoly gives more leverage to Boeing in selling satellites to the military. This fear should also be addressed as a condition of the merger. ULA must not be allowed to practice predatory tactics if the merger goes through.

At the same time, we should question why SpaceX wants to compete with the EELV's in the first place. With so few launches to compete for, there's little money to be made and a lot to lose in that market segment. SpaceX has an emerging market to tap into with the small-sats that may ride on Falcon I. Falcon V and IX are well-positioned to replace the Delta II for important missions like GPS and research satellites (Falcon V falls a bit short of Delta II performance, while Falcon IX exceeds it. With the trend towards smaller satellites, Falcon V may be preferred.)

Of course, Elon Musk & company have plans of expanding the pie instead of grabbing a bigger sliceof the tiny pie that exists today. What emerging markets do they see? Space tourism and space station resupply are the obvious choices. Robert Bigelow (Space Gigolo) has already tapped Falcon IX for a space hotel module. NASA's plan to contract out the resupply of ISS is promising, although many pitfalls lie ahead.

If Boeing and LockMart think there is money to be made in these emerging markets, they will compete. However, SpaceX and other small startups have been fortunate that Boeing and LockMart have been sleeping giants, largely skeptical of what the private sector can accomplish in space. That's why it was Burt Rutan and not Boeing who built SpaceShipOne; that's why Richard Branson and not Lockheed Martin will fly tourists in space.