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CNBC's Investing in Space newsletter offers a view into the business of space exploration and privatization, delivered straight to your inbox. CNBC's Michael Sheetz reports and curates the latest news, investor updates and exclusive interviews on the most important companies reaching new heights. Sign up to receive future editions.
No rocket has been better-described as a workhorse than SpaceX's Falcon 9. Historically a term reserved for the likes of ULA's Delta II (now retired) or Russia's Soyuz (now unavailable) or China's Long March (also unavailable), the blistering pace of Falcon 9 missions has seen the company blow past 200 launches to date, and become the staple of the Western market.
Even taking out Starlink missions, which make up roughly half of this year's 36 Falcon 9 launches, the rocket has cemented itself as a regular, reliable ride to orbit for anyone who doesn't – or can't – fly with China or Russia. And, as the Falcon 9 fleet continues its streak of booster landings, approaching 200 soon, SpaceX's launch cadence is made possible by its ability to reuse rockets in under a month.
Falcon is going up so much that you forget it's going up – it's almost boring, which is kind of what you want, ironically, BryceTech senior space analyst Phil Smith told me.
Concerns of SpaceX monopolizing the launch market through Falcon 9 have bubbled up more than a few times in the industry over the past year. For some context, BryceTech has a helpful graphic that breaks down the rocket market into classes, from Micro (e.g., Astra's Rocket 3.3) up to Super Heavy (e.g., SpaceX's Starship).
The launch market sweet spot for leading new entrant rockets – ULA's Vulcan, Rocket Lab's Neutron, Relativity's Terran R, Firefly's MLV – is in that heavy class. Aside from Blue Origin's New Glenn, the early theme is rockets that are close to the capability of Falcon 9 and less expensive. We've recently learned that Rocket Lab is targeting a price tag of about $50 million per launch for Neutron, while Relativity has been selling Terran R for about $45 million. Falcon 9 is advertised for $67 million per launch.
Notably, that market sweet spot shifted in recent years. Smith and I discussed how several of these companies were going after the small to medium side of the market, before deciding to bet on the heavy class instead.
What was underestimated was the enthusiasm among investors and startups to put together constellations [of satellites] that were huge, Smith said.
There was this thinking – and I still think to a certain degree it's true – that you need the small vehicles to get your [spacecraft] up there to do tech demos, and you're willing to pay a premium to get that done. And then you get the bigger vehicles to launch your bulk stuff, Smith said. But then the problem was SpaceX undercut that with the rideshare [missions] and killed it.
While Smith sees there being plenty of room to play in the heavy market for new rockets, the danger is how much of the pie is everybody going to get in that class. But he's confident that the workhorse — not sexy — doing the hauling of the mail type rockets will continue to be in demand from customers.
And even with Starship looming large, Smith doesn't expect the heavy-class to be made obsolete.
There will always be a need for a certain family of vehicles to pick from. I don't think Starship will be the panacea or silver bullet for all launch needs, and I think that Falcon 9 will be very hard to stop for SpaceX because the customer base will really want it, Smith said.
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