For a few months a rumor has been circulating around the launch pads. SpaceX would be the only company to apply for NASA tenders. A few days ago, Tory Bruno, director of the ULA (United Launch Alliance) gave a little more information on the subject, assuring that his company had “withdrawn” its proposals.
If the US space agency’s calls for tenders are done blindly (no one knows how many companies are responding to them), many experts believe that SpaceX is “fighting its own prices. “A situation that would not please NASA at all, dependent on the proper functioning of the rockets of a single actor.
SpaceX in a monopoly position
On the other hand, this lack of competition is nothing new. Between 2005 and 2015, NASA always selected Atlas rockets from ULA, for lack of serious competition. Since 2016, Elon Musk’s firm has won several contracts. SpaceX then made a name for itself in the space industry to the point of completely eclipsing its predecessors.
On October 1, the firm won a new call for tenders for the Sentinel-6B mission. This project must bring a satellite into orbit in order to allow NASA and the NAOO (the national agency for the protection of the oceans) to better study the seabed.
A mission that will therefore leave Earth aboard a Falcon 9 from SpaceX in 2026. A few months ago, the twin program Sentiel-6A was also won by SpaceX. This dominance over the results of calls for tenders shows that Elon Musk’s company is today the only one capable of meeting NASA’s demand.
Who are SpaceX’s opponents?
It also takes advantage of this monopoly situation to multiply contracts with the American agency. The new golden age of space is dominated by Elon Musk’s rockets, and he knows it. Behind him, other companies are trying to catch up with the wagons.
ULA, a former NASA launcher, has been grounded since the start of the war in Ukraine. The engines of its Atlas V rockets are produced by Russians. While waiting to develop Vulcain, the brand’s next launcher, it can only watch the Falcon 9 take off.
Another manufacturer recognized by NASA as “sufficiently qualified” to carry out scientific missions, Northrop Grumann is not in a good position. The group has three rockets approved by NASA, but only Antares is able to compete with Falcon 9.
Launched after the shutdown of the space shuttle in 2011, the rocket has not flown for months for the same geopolitical reasons as Atlas V. Both rockets are indeed equipped with Russian engines (RD-180 for Atlas V and RD- 181 for Antares). Northrop Grumann’s other models, the Pegasus XL and Minotaur-C launchers, have not flown since 2019. Additionally, they can only carry small payloads.
Elon Musk against Jeff Bezos: the return of the war of the billionaires?
Finally, only Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket remains. Approved by NASA for scientific missions, Jeff Bezos’ device is a serious competitor on paper. But in reality the company never flew its rocket. A first test mission should take place by the end of the year. If the flight goes well, SpaceX’s monopoly could be challenged in the coming months.