The past two weeks brought two space-news headlines: First, Amazon announced gigantic launch contracts for its Project Kuiper satellite-broadband service, and then SpaceX launched the first all-private mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Combined, both stories suggest space flight has become yet another playground for billionaires and their companies. But that overstates things: The orbital-launch business centers on Elon Musk’s SpaceX; everyone else is in orbit around it.
Last year, SpaceX sent 31 partially reusable Falcon 9 rockets to orbit, more than all other U.S. launch operators combined, and more than Russia’s total as well. China still staged more orbital launches total, although it split them among multiple series of rockets. That’s an extraordinary pace—in 2011, the entire world only completed 80 orbital launches—made possible by SpaceX’s revolutionary ability to land its first stages and re-fly them quickly and reliably.
“SpaceX really is the heavy lifter now,” says Marco A. Cáceres, an analyst with the Teal Group.
Even Amazon’s recent news—the tech giant announced last week what it called “the largest commercial procurement of launch vehicles in history”—served to underscore how SpaceX has come to lead the industry since its 2002 founding.
With Kuiper, Amazon aims to catch up with SpaceX’s Starlink and meet a July 30, 2026, deadline set by the Federal Communications Commission to launch the majority of Kuiper’s 3,236 satellites. But the unavailability of Russian rockets (off the market after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) and Chinese vehicles (banned by U.S. export controls) left only one option for Amazon if it didn’t want to hand this launch business to its rival SpaceX: to write large checks to every other launch operator in the West.
And while “Amazon has certainly eaten up a lot of the [launch] capacity,” according to Marcia S. Smith, a longtime space analyst and editor at SpacePolicyOnline.com, it’ll still have to rely on vehicles that haven’t flown yet if it hopes to keep pace with SpaceX. Of these in-development rockets, ULA’s Vulcan Centaur has 38 Kuiper launches booked, Arianespace’s Ariane 6 has 18 planned, and Blue Origin’s New Glenn (farthest from a first flight) has 12 confirmed, with an option for 15 more on that partly reusable rocket from Jeff Bezos’s space firm.
“The gap that SpaceX has on its competitors is at least several years,” Cáceres says. For instance, none of its rivals reuse first stages as SpaceX has done since 2015, although New Glenn is designed to do that.
BULLISH ON SPACEX
A dozen years earlier, when SpaceX was one of a few commercial-space startups vying for NASA contracts to take cargo and maybe astronauts to the ISS, this future was implausible to foresee.
Many industry veterans didn’t expect SpaceX to come through for NASA.
“The President’s plan only ensures that for decades to come, the United States will be both subservient to and reliant on other countries for our access to space,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R.-Ala.) said at an April 2010 hearing in which he called the cargo deal a “faith-based space program.”
Defense analyst Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute think tank, dismissed Musk in May of 2011 in a blog post on the Lexington Institute’s website headlined “SpaceX: Glib Salesman Takes NASA For A Ride.”
Asked recently what he thought of SpaceX then, Berger called himself “pretty bullish” but only so much.
“I don’t think I imagined they would have the dominant position in launch they have today,” he wrote. “I was also skeptical that they would get reuse done right, so quickly.” Which is understandable: In 2011, the U.S. had abandoned reusability when it retired the space shuttle, which had demanded exhaustive refurbishment between flights.
“Those companies that have longstanding ties with the U.S. government don’t want to risk losing those relationships by pushing too hard with new technologies and new strategies,” he says.
SpaceX’s next chance to defy skeptics will come whenever it launches Starship, a fully reusable two-stage rocket built to lift 110 tons to low Earth orbit. In late 2021, Musk said he hoped that could happen by January, but in February he only forecast “this year.”