SpaceX Competitors: Who’s Leading The Rocket Launch Race?

Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, is an aerospace company that sends cargo as well as people into space using its own reusable rockets.

The company, which is headquartered in Hawthorne, California, was launched in 2002 by Tesla founder Elon Musk.

While SpaceX’s self-proclaimed mission is to allow humankind to become multi-planetary, it has already revolutionized the way we deal with space logistics today.

Launching anything into space has traditionally been a very expensive undergoing. The United States government vis-à-vis NASA spent a total of $25.8 billion on Project Apollo between 1960 and 1973. That is over $260 billion if you account for inflation.

One of the major reasons for this hefty price tag is the fact that the rockets and most of their parts were only used one time.

An added problem was (and still is) the involvement of countless subcontractors in the supply chain who all wanted a piece of the pie and would thus mark up prices at every stage of the procurement process.

SpaceX, on the other hand, has developed reusable rockets such as the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, Starship, and Dragon to send both cargo and humans into space. The firm claims that it takes 10 launches for the cost of a rocket to amortize.

The rockets themselves, which SpaceX claims “are the first and only orbital class rockets capable of reflight,” land on one of its autonomous spaceport drone ships out on the ocean or a specifically designed launchpad.

Another reason why SpaceX is substantially cheaper is the fact that it produces everything in-house. Everything from the battery to the controls is designed and manufactured in its Hawthorne facility.

As a result, government agencies such as NASA can now save hundreds of millions of dollars every time they send anything into space.

SpaceX has since leveraged its technological prowess to expand into a variety of business lines. For instance, private citizens will soon be able to travel to space via the Dragon rocket. In April 2022, the first crew composed entirely of private citizens returned from the International Space Station after spending two weeks in earth’s orbit.

Additionally, SpaceX has been sending dozens of its own satellites into space to provide high-speed and low-latency internet connections to people in rural areas. The internet plan, dubbed Starlink, costs $110 per month with a one-time hardware installation cost of $599.

This has ultimately translated to big business for the company. In 2021, SpaceX generated around $1.6 billion in revenue. Musk has managed to raise around $9.9 billion in funding for SpaceX thus far.

The firm employs around 10,000 people who have collectively launched over 170 rockets, most of which were successful, into space.

However, SpaceX wasn’t always looking like the runaway success that it appears to be today. The first three launches of what was then called the Falcon 1 rocket all resulted in failure. Musk, in 2008, almost went bankrupt as he invested all of his money into getting SpaceX, SolarCity, and Tesla off the ground.

Luckily, the fourth Falcon 1 launch ultimately proved to be successful. NASA, which had supported SpaceX’s initial launches with $278 million in funding as part of the agency’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, contracted the firm for 12 additional flights worth $1.6 billion.

In the subsequent years, SpaceX reached some additional milestones including sending the first private spacecraft (Dragon) to visit the International Space Station (2012), becoming the first-ever orbital class rocket to conduct a landing on land (2015), and conducting the first reflight of an orbital class rocket (2017), among many other achievements.

Ranking Methodology 

The methodology with which competitors of SpaceX are ranked is based on publicly available data. Information such as the revenue, the number of launches and employees, and anything else that’s relevant will be considered.

Since SpaceX works together with all kinds of customers, ranging from NASA itself all the way to Turkish cable companies, it technically competes with aerospace firms across the globe.

We will, however, only take competitors from SpaceX’s commercial launch business into account. The competitors of Starlink are covered in the following article.

Lastly, government entities will be excluded from this list as well. It has to be noted, though, that state-sponsored missions, such as that of CASC (China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation) or Roscosmos, still represent a considerable number of the world’s launches.

It has to be noted that this analysis should not be seen as an endorsement of either service. It is merely a summary of the competition that SpaceX currently faces.

So, without further ado, let’s take a closer look at the top 10 competitors of SpaceX.

1. United Launch Alliance (ULA)

Headquarters: Centennial, Colorado

Founder(s): Boeing, Lockheed Martin

Year Founded: 2006

United Launch Alliance, or ULA, claims to be North America’s most experienced space launch company, boasting more than 150 consecutive launches without any failure. ULA is a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin which created the company to reduce expenditures.

The firm’s line of rockets entails the Atlas V, Delta IV Heavy, and the Vulcan Centaur, which is set to make its debut sometime in 2022 or 2023. Its rockets, unlike that of SpaceX and other competitors on this list, are not reusable.

For instance, the Atlas can transport up to 41,570 kg into low-Earth orbit (LEO) while a launch starts (!) at $109 million (for the cheapest payload). Space X’s Falcon Heavy, in comparison, would cost around $97 million (average price), with a maximum payload of 63,800 kg for LEO expeditions.

Similarly, the Delta IV Heavy has delivered payloads for the U.S. Air Force, National Reconnaissance Office, and NASA. It can transport payloads of up to 28,370 kg into earth’s low orbit. At more than $400 million per shipment, the Delta IV Heavy is one of the costliest offerings out there.

The first ever launch ULA conducted took place on December 14th, 2006. The Delta II, which has since been retired, transported the satellite USA-193 for the National Reconnaissance Office. ULA, which employs over 3,000 people, does not disclose revenue or order backlog figures.

Source: Space.com, Space.com, United Launch Alliance

2. Arianespace

Headquarters: Évry-Courcouronnes, France

Founder(s): unknown

Year Founded: 1980

Arianespace is not only the oldest company on this list but the one with the most launches by far. The Ariane 1, which was launched on the 24th of December, 1979 and carried the European CAT technological capsule (to simulate a typical satellite payload), was the firm’s first-ever successful launch.

Ever since Arianespace has facilitated close to 300 launches. 15 of those took place throughout 2021, representing a 50-percent increase from the year prior. The majority of those launches (> 250) were conducted using the Ariane 5 model.

The Ariane 5, which has been in operation since 2003, can take payloads of up to 20,000 kg into LEO. The same model was used to launch NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope into space back in December 2021. A successor model, the Ariane 6, is currently in development, which will be used for 18 launches of Amazon’s Project Kuiper, among others.

Apart from the namesake Ariane models, Arianespace has also developed a lightweight model called Vega. The rocket can transport up to 1,500 kg to the circular polar orbit and has brought over 600 satellites into space since its launch. A successor model, the Vega C (LEO payloads of up to 2,300 kg), had its inaugural flight in July 2022.

Lastly, Arianespace conducts launches using the Russian rocket Soyuz as well. However, due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the European Space Agency has halted future launches of Russian rockets for the time being.  

Arianespace is part of the ArianeGroup, which itself was founded in 2015 as a joint venture between Airbus and Safran. In 2021, Arianespace generated €1.25 billion in revenue while its current order backlog stands at €4 billion.

Source: Arianespace, Arianespace, Space News

3. Rocket Lab

Headquarters: Huntington Beach, California

Founder(s): Peter Beck

Year Founded: 2006

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket provides launch services for payloads of up to 300 kg. It is designed to deliver small satellites to precise and unique orbits while being the only reusable orbital-class small rocket.

To date, Electron recorded 29 launches, which led to the deployment of close to 150 satellites for organizations such as NASA, DARPA, the U.S. Air Force Space Test Program, Canon, and more. This is particularly impressive given that the first successful launch took place back in May 2017.

Ironically, Rocket Lab did not only disrupt traditional launch services but even disruptors like SpaceX. Rocket Lab ‘only’ charges $5 million per flight, which is equal to about $10,000 per pound of payload. This is partially due to the low recovery cost. Rocket Lab needs to rent a helicopter for about four hours to recoup its booster, which costs approximately $6,000. 

The firm is currently working on a successor to Electron dubbed Neutron, which can transport payloads of up to 13,000 kg. Neutron is set to embark on its first mission in 2024.

Rocket Lab has, furthermore, acquired a variety of companies in the past including Advanced Solutions for $40 million (October 2021) or SolAero Technologies for $80 million (December 2021). This has enabled the firm to expand its offering, which now also entails selling satellite components and separation systems, flight software, radios, and solar cells.

Founder Beck has been enamored with aerospace engineering since his apprenticeship at New Zealand-based Fisher & Paykel Appliances. He used the firm’s tools to create a rocket bike, rocket-attached scooter, and a jet pack.

Beck moved the firm’s headquarters from New Zealand to California back in 2013. The move was financed by the $709.4 million in funding he raised during the subsequent years. Rocket Lab, which employs over 800 people, raised another $750 million when it went public on the Nasdaq stock exchange back in August 2021.

For the fiscal year 2021, Rocket Lab generated $62.2 million in revenue while amassing an order backlog of over $500 million.  

Source: Ars Technica, Crunchbase, Rocket Lab, Yahoo Finance

4. Northrop Grumman

Headquarters: Falls Church, Virginia

Founder(s): Jack Northrop, Leroy Grumman

Year Founded: 1939

Northrop Grumman is an aerospace and defense technology company employing over 90,000 people. The firm has been supplying military equipment for decades. In recent times, it made worldwide news after it led the industry team for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the most powerful space telescope ever built.

Additionally, the firm provides launch services vis-à-vis its own Antares rocket as well as for the Minotaur family of rockets (primarily for the U.S. Air Force Orbital/Suborbital Program-3). The Antares rocket offers low-Earth orbit launches for payloads of up to 8,000 kg.

The rocket was initially developed by Orbital ATK, which Northrop Grumman acquired for $7.8 billion in cash plus assumptions of US$1.4 billion in debt back in 2017. Its various iterations have been launched a total of 16 times, of which 15 were successful.

In recent times, Northrop Grumman has announced a partnership with Firefly Aerospace to build an American-built first-stage upgrade for the Antares rocket (using Firefly’s propulsion technology). Northrop Grumman has, furthermore, created a joint venture with Boeing for Space Launch System missions. It would manage the Artemis rocket launches on NASA’s behalf.

Northrop Grumman generated around $35.6 billion in revenue during the fiscal year 2021. Around a third of that can be attributed to its ‘Space Systems’ division, which entails the firm’s launch services.

Source: Investor Relations Northrop Grumman, Newsroom Northrop Grumman, Northrop Grumman, Space News

5. Virgin Orbit

Headquarters: Long Beach, California

Founder(s): Virgin Group

Year Founded: 2017

Most people have gotten to know Virgin’s space business via its manned flights that are conducted by Virgin Galatic. However, it also provides launch capabilities vis-à-vis Virgin Orbit, which was spun out of Virgin Galactic in December 2021 and went public on the Nasdaq stock exchange.

The firm’s inaugural rocket, the LauncherOne, delivered its first commercial payload to space on June 30th, 2021. The launch carried seven payloads such as the first-ever defense satellite for the Netherlands or CubeSats from the U.S. Department of Defense. Virgin Orbit facilitated two more successful launches ever since.

LauncherOne is a medium-sized rocket that can transport payloads of up to 500kg. It is thus used for launching small satellites whose purposes entail earth observation, telecommunications, climate monitoring, and more.

Interestingly, the LauncherOne will be deployed in the air from a custom-designed Boeing 747-400. The Boeing plane will fly anywhere between 30 minutes to 4 hours to reach the required altitude. The LauncherOne rocket then descents for around four seconds before its engine is activated.

Customers of Virgin Orbit currently include NASA, OneWeb, and Sky. Virgin Orbit averaged around $2.5 million in revenue for its first three launches. However, the firm’s current order backlog stands at $575 million (of which ‘only’ $157 million is binding).

Source: Crunchbase, TechCrunch, Virgin Orbit, Virgin Orbit Investor Relations

6. Astra

Headquarters: Alameda, California

Founder(s): Adam London, Chris Kemp

Year Founded: 2016

Astra offers launch services for payloads of up to 500 kg from two U.S. spaceports. The firm’s rockets are currently on their fourth iteration and had two successful launches (out of nine attempts).

In March 2022, it successfully delivered payloads into LEO for the first time. Astra became the fastest company to reach that milestone. The firm’s second first was when it became the first launch service provider to go public on the Nasdaq stock exchange back in June 2021, raising $500 million in the process.

Astra has raised a further $300 million in funding, which it partially used to snap up companies such as Apollo Fusion for $145 million back in June 2021. As a result, Astra is now able to sell spacecraft engines as well.

The firm’s founders certainly had the experience to pull all of this off. Chris Kemp, for instance, became NASA’s first chief technology officer (CTO) for its IT division.

He, furthermore, co-founded the OpenStack Foundation (OSF) and cloud infrastructure company Nebula. Adam London, on the other hand, had operated the aerospace research and design firm Ventions for 12 years before starting Astra.

In 2021, Astra did not generate any revenue. However, its current order backlog stands at $160 million, which is set to be fulfilled with the rollout of its 4.0 rocket.

Source: Astra, Astra Investor Relations, Crunchbase

7. Blue Origin

Headquarters: Kent, Washington

Founder(s): Jeff Bezos

Year Founded: 2000

It was the 20th of July, 2021 when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, alongside a crew that included his brother, 82-year-old space pioneer Wally Funk, and an 18-year-old student, was launched into space for 10 minutes via Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket.

The reusable rocket, which is named after Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, not only aims to transport humans but also cargo into space. However, since the payload is transported in boxes located within the human-occupied cabin, other models are more suitable for transporting cargo into space.

Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, which is set to launch in 2023, is designed to be used for 25 flights and promises to be able to transport 2x the load of any currently existing launch vehicle (up to 45,000 kg).

The firm’s and Bezos’ ambitions go way beyond launching cargo into space, though. For example, its Blue Moon cargo carrier and lander aims to deliver a wide variety of payloads to the lunar surface. The first launch is slated to take place in 2024.

And Bezos certainly put his money where his mouth is. He allegedly invested around $7.5 billion of his own money to get Blue Origin literally off the ground. Blue Origin has, furthermore, been awarded grants worth around $167 million.

Unfortunately, the firm’s reputation has taken a few hits along the way as well. In April 2021, Blue Origin filed a protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office after NASA after the agency named SpaceX the sole winner of its Human Landing System (HLS) contract. Blue Origin doubled down by filing a lawsuit in the Court of Federal Claims, which was shut down weeks later.

And after the successful landed of the New Shepard rocket, Bezos had the following to say: “I also want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all this.”

The public and press, especially given Amazon’s allegedly poor treatment of workers, criticized Bezos for what they felt was a pretty inappropriate message.

Source: Blue Origin, Crunchbase, Forbes, Space.com

8. Relativity Space

Headquarters: Long Beach, California

Founder(s): Jordan Noone, Tim Ellis

Year Founded: 2015

Relativity Space competes with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 model via its own Terran R rocket, which will be capable of launching over 20,000 kg to LEO. Terran R will fulfill its first mission from Cape Canaveral (Florida) starting in 2024.

Meanwhile, its Terran 1 model is the first rocket that has been entirely 3D-printed. By, furthermore, utilizing artificial intelligence and autonomous robotics, Relativity Space is able to manufacture both models within 60 days from project start to finish.

Ellis and Noone have worked for both Blue Origin as well as SpaceX before they launched Relativity Space. Since then, they have raised a whopping $1.3 billion in venture funding to get the firm, which employs close to 1,000 people, off the ground.

In June 2022, Relativity Space closed a deal with OneWeb to send its second-gen broadband satellites to orbit. As of today, Terran R has five customers in its backlog that account for an order backlog of $1.2 billion. 

Source: Crunchbase, Relativity Space, TechCrunch

9. ABL Space Systems

Headquarters: El Segundo, California

Founder(s): Harry O'Hanley

Year Founded: 2017

The RS1 rocket is capable of launching 1,350 kg of payload into LEO. It is powered by a deployable ground system called GSO, which is a containerized solution that promises rapid deployability on any commercial launch site.

Although past attempts, such as one in January 2022, resulted in failure (i.e., explosions), the firm is still on track to reach its goal of facilitating the first commercial launch by the end of 2022. In May, it managed to complete a similar test in its second stage.

ABL, in the past, has been awarded (multiple) contracts with the Department of Defense, Lockheed Martin, Amazon, and other world-renowned organizations. Unfortunately, the firm does currently not detail the size of its order backlog.

Founder O’Hanley spent the first few years of his career as a research assistant at MIT and then joint SpaceX where he became a manager for the Falcon 9’s Integration and Test team. His deep industry expertise has allowed O’Hanley to raise $419 million in funding for ABL Space Systems. The company currently employs around 300 people.

Source: ABL Space Systems, Crunchbase, Space News

10. Phantom Space

Headquarters: Tucson, Arizona

Founder(s): Jim Cantrell, Michael D'Angelo, Michal Prywata

Year Founded: 2020

Phantom Space is another company that is yet to launch its first commercial mission. It currently expects to do its first launch sometime in 2023. Those missions would be conducted via its Daytona rocket, which can transport up to 450 kg into earth’s low orbit.

The price tag of a dedicated Daytona launch is $4 million. Essentially, Phantom Space has adopted a similar strategy as Rocket Lab, which is to send small payloads at a fraction of the cost. The second rocket, set to launch in 2024, is Laguna, which can hold loads of up to 1,200 kg and costs $8 million.

While the Daytona is not reusable, the Laguna can actually be utilized for multiple missions. In January 2022, Phantom Space became one of 12 companies that have been awarded a NASA contract to offer launches of CubeSats and other smallsats.

So far, its founders have raised $27.5 million in funding– and are certainly well equipped to fulfill their mission. Co-founder Cantrell co-founded and led Vector, another launch company, from 2016 to 2019 while raising over $100 million in venture capital.

Unfortunately, one of the firm’s key investors pulled out, which forced Cantrell to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. He consequently banded together with Michael D’Angelo and Michal Prywata to give rocket manufacturing another go.

Source: Crunchbase, Phantom Space, Space News

Hi folks, Viktor checking in! Years of experience in various tech-related roles have led me to start this blog, which I hope provides you with as much enjoyment to read as I have writing the content.

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