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Guess who’s unhappy about Elon Musk’s SpaceX

SpaceX has astonished the world during the past few years, perfecting the art of reusable rockets and thus bringing down the cost of launching things into space. As a result, a customer can expect to pay $62 million to launch something on a Falcon 9, a price that is expected to come down as the block 5 version comes into service.

The United States military, NASA, and commercial companies are thrilled to be able to pay what a few years ago would be absurdly rock-bottom prices for a space launch. However, SpaceX’s competitors are less than thrilled by the upstart rocket company. 

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Ars Technica recently ran an account of an interview with the chief executive of European aerospace company Ariane Group, Alain Charmeau, who is less than amused about the price pressure SpaceX is placing on rocket launches.

 

The problem is, as Space News recently noted, a rocket launch on an Ariane 5 costs $137 million before European Space Agency subsidies knock the cost down to $100 million. Ariane Group would like to lower the cost further to $96 million, still well above what SpaceX is able to charge. Moreover, the Ariane 6, due to enter service in 2020, will still cost more than the Falcon 9. In the same year, the Blue Origin New Glenn is due to start flying, further disrupting the launch market.

Charmeau said something very telling about the idea of reusable rockets. "Let us say we had ten guaranteed launches per year in Europe and we had a rocket which we can use ten times — we would build exactly one rocket per year. That makes no sense. I cannot tell my teams: 'Goodbye, see you next year!'"

Elon Musk, were he inclined to comment, might suggest that Ariane find more customers so that they could launch more than 10 a year. He would also suggest that short turn-arounds are just as important as reusability. The space shuttle was reusable (sort of), but NASA spent months turning an orbiter around between missions. SpaceX is shooting for turning around a Falcon 9 first-stage in a day, though typically the time required will be a little longer.

As for that 10 guaranteed launches a year Charmeau ruminated about, SpaceX performed 18 flights of the Falcon 9 in 2017, double the number the year before. So far, SpaceX has launched nine Falcon 9s and a Falcon Heavy in 2018. The company hopes to launch over 30 rockets in total in 2018.

If Charmeau wonders how he could keep his employees busy if Ariane were to develop a reusable launcher, Musk has an answer to that, too. His engineers are working on the BFR, called the Big Falcon Rocket, a monster that would be capable of taking 150 metric tons to low Earth orbit.

The two-stage BFR would not only launch payloads to Earth orbit, but also to the surfaces of the moon and Mars. A variant of the rocket would take paying passengers from point to point anywhere on the planet. Hop tests are due to start in 2019 with the first orbital flights a few years later.

What would a trip on the BFR cost? Musk is claiming that a single launch would come to just $7 million, since he expects to reuse a single BFR about 100 times, according to the Next Big Future. Since a lunar or interplanetary flight would require the use of a second launch of a BFR configured as a tanker, the cost of one of those missions would roughly double.

The sobering fact, from the point of view of Ariane and the other traditional big aerospace companies, is that even if Musk is off by an order of magnitude about the cost of a BFR launch, he will still have changed spaceflight in ways that would have seemed unimaginable a few years ago.

The bottom line for Charmeau is that he had better stop complaining and start getting busy, or he will not have a company in a few years. And he isn’t the only big aerospace company executive in that position.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”