An Ocean’s width between success and muddling

It is sometimes interesting to observe how two companies operating in the same business confront challenges from completely different philosophies. In this case, the two companies in question are SpaceX (a U.S. company) and Arianespace (a European company).

One of the challenges facing both companies is the diminished number of GEO launch orders. Equally as challenging (at least for Arianespace) is the trend of declining satellite masses. The difference in attitudes and answers to these challenges between the two companies is very striking and could very well reflect American and European business-philosophies in general.

Facing the challenge of diminished GEO satellite launches, SpaceX responded with two initiatives, both of which are growth-oriented (and contribute towards SpaceX’s goal of Mars colonization). One response was for the company to build its own LEO constellation (Starlink) and use its fleet of launch vehicles to deploy these satellites. This project enables SpaceX to maintain (or accelerate) a high annual launch cadence and perfect quick launch-turnarounds, while also generating revenues (and cash?) from its Starlink constellation.

The second SpaceX response is even more audacious…obsoleting its current market-leading Falcon rocket by aggressively developing its Super Heavy booster and Starship—to be launched to orbit sometime next year. Both will test the company’s quick-turnaround ability as the booster is designed to launch 20 times a day, while the Starship can launch 3-4x per day. Oh, and they will theoretically be able to lift 150 tons in a single launch to LEO.

For Arianespace, the response is…different…

To be fair, and maybe to better understand the response, the European company is a political compromise, now essentially privatized. Airbus Safran owns 74% of Ariane, which was supposed to allow the company to “adapt to the changes of an increasingly competitive market.” The company’s workhorse Ariane 5 costs at least 2x the advertised price of a Falcon 9 with a max launch cadence of seven launches per year. Acknowledging this disparity, Ariane said it would cut at least 5% off the Ariane 5’s launch price. But the company is also phasing out the Ariane 5, recognizing it as non-competitive against SpaceX’s current offering. Ariane 5’s odd payload configuration, requiring the dual manifest of one extremely large and one small GEO satellite, likely contributed to the phase-out decision.

To compete with the Falcon 9, Ariane is building two versions of a new launch vehicle, the Ariane 6. Oddly enough, both versions of the Ariane 6 are going to be more expensive than SpaceX’s Falcon 9—by design. In spite of this obvious weakness, Arianespace is committed to staying the course, even if it requires holding the European space industry and employees hostage. Earlier this year, the company threatened to halt development of the Ariane 6 if it didn’t receive enough orders. Eventually, enough orders came through.

In conclusion, while SpaceX and Arianespace may compete in the same industry, they inhabit different universes. One is contributing to the economy, while the other appears to be draining it. One company is creating jobs while the other appears content to simply maintain jobs. One company is boldly pushing the technology envelope while the other seems happy with just maintaining what it has. In the end, one path appears sustainable, while the other is not.