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Contenders Line Up to Challenge Falcon 9

SpaceX,ULA,Blue Origin
Mihir Tripathy
Drishti Khokhar
July 6, 20225:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)

On January 24, 2021, Falcon 9 launched the first ride-share mission to Sun Synchronous Orbit.

It was delivering a record-setting 143 satellites to space. And while this was an important mission for SpaceX in itself, it was also the moment Falcon 9 overtook United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V for the total number of consecutive successful launches.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 had become America’s workhorse rocket, launching 31 times in 2021. It is all set to beat that record this year, launching almost an average of once a week. While most of the launches deliver Starlink satellites to orbit, the company is still launching the most commercial payloads to orbit, too, thanks to its low cost and high launch cadence.

Falcon 9 is a medium-lift launch vehicle, with the capability to launch over 22.8 metric tonnes to low earth orbit. Unlike any other rocket, its first stage lands back on Earth after separating from its second stage. In part, this allows SpaceX to offer the cheapest option for most customers with payloads that need to reach orbit. Under its ride-share program, a kilogram can be placed in a sun-synchronous orbit for a mere 1.1 million dollars, far cheaper than all other currently operating small satellite launch vehicles.

The reusability and fast booster turnaround times have made Falcon 9 the preferred choice for private companies and government agencies. This has allowed SpaceX to capture a huge portion of the launch market.

So what about its competitors?

Right now there aren’t any which can affect the company’s growing launch manifest. However, many companies are close to adopting reusability techniques to effectively compete in the launch market


Let’s talk about the United Launch Alliance. ULA is an amalgamation of Boeing Space and Lockheed Martin, a merger in 2006 to manage costs in a then-dwindling launch market. The company offered its Atlas V for quite a few years, but that rocket is close to retiring once its launch manifest is complete. Powered by the Russian RD-180 engine, the most powerful version of the Atlas V can place over 18.8 metric tonnes of payload to low earth orbit. There are over 19 versions of the Atlas V, due to options for 5 additional solid rocket boosters, RL-10 upper stage engines, and a 4 or 5-meter fairing.

Falcon 9 has a $50 million launch cost, but an Atlas V can cost upwards of $109 million, and due to this, this rocket was never a contender for commercial launches. However, it consistently won NASA’s Launch Service Procurement and the Space Force’s highly lucrative launch deals for classified missions, securing over 60 percent of such launches in the latest National Security Space Launch contract.

Due to these high costs, and the US Congress's concerns about dependence on Russian engines, ULA started working on their next-generation rocket, named Vulcan. Designed to replace the Atlas V and the Delta IV Heavy, it sports various manufacturing and technological advancements, making it considerably cheaper, and it’s powered by an American-made Blue Origin BE-4 engine.

BE-4 is an oxygen-rich, closed-cycle engine powered by Liquid Methane and Liquid Oxygen. Vulcan’s upper stage is essentially a beefed-up version of the centaur stage. Named Centaur V, it sports 2 RL-10 engines, powered by liquid hydrogen and oxygen. Similar to Atlas, Vulcan’s ascent can be assisted by up to 6 Northrop Grumman’s Solid Rocket Boosters, depending on the payload being launched. The most powerful version of the Vulcan can place over 27 metric tonnes to low earth orbit.

Vulcan will also be partially reusable, but its methodology is nothing like the Falcon 9. The company plans to salvage the BE-4 engines through a mid-air recovery, and reuse it for future launches, saving over 90% of the propulsion costs. ULA calls this the Sensible Modular Autonomous Return Technology — or SMART recovery. Once the second stage separates from the core, the engine section will detach from the rest of the booster and deploy an inflatable heat shield to survive the atmospheric re-entry. Once in the thicker parts of the atmosphere, it’ll deploy a parachute, and a helicopter will catch it in mid-air, and return it for refurbishment.

ULA released this concept back in 2015, and apart from some vague updates from their CEO Tory Bruno on Twitter, nothing else was released to the public regarding this concept. Many thought it was never going to happen — and it made sense — Falcon 9’s continued dominance meant little to no commercial launches for ULA’s newest launch vehicle, and it’ll mostly serve government contracts that provide no incentives to lower the cost. But one commercial contract changed everything, giving everyone — apart from SpaceX — a much-needed thrust to complete the development of their upcoming rockets and incorporate reusability.

On April 25, 2022, Amazon signed a billion-dollar launch contract with ULA for their internet satellite constellation, called Project Kuiper. Under the contract, ULA will launch over 38 Vulcans, making it one of the largest deals ever signed.

Suddenly SMART made so much sense. It will not only drive down costs but also increase the launch cadence of the Vulcan rocket. There are no public figures for how much the Vulcan will cost after taking into account reusability, but it remains to be seen if it’ll compete with Falcon 9, since launch costs are not the only reason SpaceX isn’t launching satellites for Project Kuiper.

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New Glenn

Also launching Kuiper’s satellite is Blue Origin. Amazon and Bezos’ space company have signed the deal to carry out over 27 launches. From conducting regular sub-orbital flights to developing a new space station, Blue Origin wants to live up to its name and prove its a real contender. And the company intends to reach orbit with their New Glenn rocket. In development since 2012, New Glenn is still quite far from its first launch. The company plans to get it up and running by the end of next year, which — like most timelines in the aerospace industry — is overly optimistic.

Powered by 7 BE-4 engines, New Glenn can deliver over 45 tonnes to low earth orbit, outperforming not only Falcon 9 but also Falcon Heavy in its reusable configuration. Its 7-meter fairing is the largest of its kind, providing over 2 times the payload volume of any existing launch vehicle. New Glenn will launch from Blue Origin’s Launch Complex 36 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Similar to Falcon 9, New Glenn’s first stage will separate from the second stage, and return back to Earth on their ship, Jacklyn. If it works, New Glenn will be a game-changer once it’s up and running, as the company looks to compete with SpaceX in both commercial and governmental payloads.

Terran R

It’s not only the incumbents who’re trying to reduce overall launch costs. A new wave of companies is planning their entry into the launch market, with the promise of bringing huge changes to the industry. Starting out with a small satellite launcher, most are planning to enter the medium launch market as soon as they can launch payloads reliably.

One of the most promising companies is Relativity Space, founded by Tim Ellis and Jordan Noore. Relativity is betting big on additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing. 3D printing allows for faster design iterations, significant part count reduction, and a simple and vertically integrated supply chain.

The company is developing a fully reusable medium launch system capable of launching over 20 tonnes to low earth orbit. Similar to their smaller but yet-to-fly Terran-1, Terran R will be fully 3D printed, which not only includes the first and the second stage but also the payload fairing and the engines. 3D printing will allow faster compounding progress and iteration, which not only speeds up their development but thereby also reduces launch costs.

Once operational, Terran R will directly compete with Falcon 9 for not only commercial missions but also government ones under NASA’s Launch Service Program, and the US Space Force’s National Security Space Launch Program. The company is targeting 2024 for its first orbital launch attempt from Cape Canaveral, but that might be too optimistic for a company that still hasn’t flown anything.


Another new company already looking to develop a medium-lift launcher is Firefly. Founded by Tom Markusic, Max Polyakov, and Kaan Gunay, the company aims to address high launch costs using the simplest approach to technology, leveraging diverse design teams and commercial, off-the-shelf components to reduce risk, maximize reliability, and minimize development time.

Firefly is planning to develop the capability to place over 11 metric tonnes to low earth orbit, using their Beta launch vehicle. Based on their small satellite Alpha’s design, Beta is powered by 5 Reaver 2 engines. Although a lot isn’t known about the engine, it’ll be powered by RP-1 and Liquid Oxygen, similar to the Reaver. No word on whether the rocket will be reusable or not, since the company is focused more on getting Alpha to orbit.


Providing reliable launch services since 2017 with their Electron rocket, Rocket Lab is also looking to enter the medium launch market, with a focus on serving the ever-growing needs of massive internet constellations. Named Neutron, the rocket will be capable of placing over 8 tonnes in Low Earth Orbit. It’ll be partially reusable with the first stage returning back to land on a drone ship. What makes it different from Falcon 9 is its fixed Hungry Hippo captive fairing, which does not separate from the launch vehicle. These fairings open up like a blooming flower, releasing the second stage, which will be housed inside their fairing. Once released, the fairings will close before the rocket re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere. The whole rocket makes use of carbon composites, something the company has extensive experience working with via their Electron launch vehicle.


While mostly launching medium to heavy satellites to orbit, Falcon 9 also competes in the small satellite market via their rideshare program to numerous orbits. This is a market most commonly targeted by new entrants with their new small satellite launch vehicles. However, the launch costs of such vehicles are considerably more expensive than SpaceX.

So how are they even competitors? Numerous companies prefer flying their payloads on a solo mission over a rideshare. If Falcon 9 is a big bus for such satellites, small sat launchers are an uber, placing the satellites precisely in the required orbit and not needing the satellites to conduct their own in-orbit burns or launch on a separate tug, which in turn reduces costs.

But will these Incoming companies, with their simpler manufacturing techniques, ever be cheaper than Falcon 9?

They don’t have to. They just need to be close. If these launchers cost just a bit more, companies might prefer the uber instead of the bus. With more and more small satellite launches coming online, more competition will incentivize lower launch costs.

Rocket Lab’s Electron is leading the small satellite market, becoming the second most launched vehicle. As the company starts to refly returned boosters, it will have an increased launch cadence and thereby reduce its launch costs.


Most of these rockets mentioned may edge out the Falcon 9, but one rocket which will most certainly take over its dominance is SpaceX’s own Starship. Designed from the ground up to achieve airline-like operations, the fully-reusable superheavy launch vehicle is planned to replace Falcon 9 once it becomes operational.

With no expendable stages and low maintenance required between flights, Starship will be orders of magnitudes cheaper if all goals are met. And if certified for crewed launches, it’ll drastically reduce the cost of human spaceflight, a necessary step to achieve the company’s goals of landing humans on Mars.

SpaceX is planning to achieve $1 Million per launch for Starship. That would be over 50 times cheaper than the Falcon 9. If they get anywhere close, this price point would make Starship the cheapest way for any payload to achieve orbit, no matter how small they are.

Mihir Tripathy
Drishti Khokhar
July 6, 20225:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)