Published in The Patriot Ledger June 4, 2015
It was a win for competition, a loss for monopoly. Last week, the U.S. Air Force announced it would allow SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Rocket to compete for the launching of military satellites, ending a decade-long monopoly of United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
It was also another win for the CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk, who is said to be the real-life model for fictional Tony Stark, high-tech entrepreneur of the “Iron Man” and Avengers movies. Musk had sued the Air Force to be allowed to compete, taking the daring move of suing the organization he was seeking business from. And it worked.
United Launch Allaince’s Delta and Atlas rockets have been launching satellites, space shuttles, and interplanetary probes into space for many decades, but SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is a relative newcomer to the rocket business. Its maiden launch was only in 2010, but since then, in addition to other launches, it has successfully launched six cargo missions to the International Space Station for NASA.
Falcon 9 is likely to be serious competition to United Launch Alliance's rockets, because SpaceX has kept its costs down by developing most of its engineering and manufacturing in-house. Cost is not the only factor in bidding for satellite launches, but the Falcon 9 also does pretty well on reliability. Of its 18 launches to date, 18 have been successful. Not too shabby.
Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, investing much of his own money, having received many millions from his early involvement in Internet companies, including Paypal. He is also CEO and chairman of Tesla Motors, whose all-electric Model S received the highest rating of all cars tested last year by Consumer Reports, and is chairman of Solar City, the largest installer of residential solar power in the U. S. And he has several other commercial interests; he’s a very busy man.
But SpaceX remains Musk’s major interest. The company has dozens of future launches under contract with both commercial and government customers, but is not just resting on its laurels. Later this year it plans to launch its Falcon Heavy, a rocket constructed from three Falcon 9s. If successful, it will be the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V, which launched our astronauts to the moon but was retired in 1973. In a few years, the Falcon Heavy may launch astronauts to the Space Station, a task that currently can be done only by Russian rockets.
More long range, Musk is working to reduce the costs of launching into space by making its rockets reusable. Most of the cost of rocket launches today is the cost of the rocket, which falls away into the ocean after its work is done. Musk has a record of making extravagant projections, but he claims that with reusable rockets the cost of launching into space could be reduced by as much as a factor of ten.
Speaking of long-range goals, Musk has specifically stated, “creating the technology needed to establish life on Mars is and always has been the fundamental goal of SpaceX.” He feels that making humanity a multi-planetary species is necessary for our ultimate survival. He speaks of eventually having millions of people on Mars; Elon Musk is no small thinker.
Competition for the next military satellite launch opens this month. United Launch Alliance will find it tough to compete against SpaceX, not only because SpaceX will probably bid a lower cost. The U. S. Congress, upset by Russian actions in the Ukraine, recently passed a bill forbidding the use of Russian components on military launches after 2019, and United Launch Alliance uses a Russian engine in the first stage of its lowest-cost rocket, the Atlas 5. If United Launch Alliance doesn’t get Congress to modify this law, the launching of military satellites may soon become a monopoly again, but this time a SpaceX monopoly.