War, as the saying goes, is the domain of chance. Business is usually more friendly to calculated manoeuvres, but when actual fighting intervenes all bets are off.
Elon Musk, the visionary behind SpaceX, must be contemplating such old saws. By bringing private-sector discipline to the rocket business, he has turned the launch industry upside down, taking market share and leaving established rivals scrambling for a response.
Such a compelling narrative beguiles. Like the Iron Man films’ Tony Stark character he inspired, Musk looks able to innovate at will, master any technical challenge and run – or fly – rings round any rival.
But to be enchanted by one explanation for why the world is the way it is doesn’t mean that story is the exclusive truth, especially when the world changes.
And, how the world has changed. Back in April, SpaceX sued the US government for the right to compete for air force national security launches, the contract for which is held exclusively by United Launch Alliance (ULA). As Musk told Congress at the time, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that is ULA has proved to be the world’s most expensive solution, pushing four times the cost per launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9.
Litigation goes on, and Musk would appear to hold the moral high ground. But the ground under his feet has shifted, dramatically, with war in far-off Ukraine. Sanctions tit-for-tat has shut off supplies of Russian-built rocket motors on which ULA relies, so the air force has called for ideas about an all-American alternative.
Falcon 9 or its heavy variant would do the job, so Musk could end up getting what he wants. Except, his rivals haven’t stood still. ULA has teamed up with Blue Origin, a sort of nascent SpaceX run by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and ATK has thrown its hat in the ring. It’s hard to imagine we won’t also hear from Aerojet Rocketdyne.
This is where the SpaceX view of the world threatens to collide with reality. Its rivals are all legacy suppliers working with technologies, government funding models and cost structures left over from the Cold War space race – but that doesn’t mean they are flat-footed. SpaceX may be quick and nimble, but its rocket technology is ordinary; its great advantage has been the fact that it started from a clean sheet.
Now, war in Ukraine has reshuffled the deck so everybody can work from a clean sheet. Significantly in this business, size matters; SpaceX is up against giants and its advantages are no longer obvious.
Source: Flight International