Author Topic: RocketLab vs Blue Origin - Whose Approach / Business Strategy is Better?  (Read 79965 times)

Online Robotbeat

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JPL got Skycrane to work first time. That's a propulsive landing...
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Offline Lars-J

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JPL got Skycrane to work first time. That's a propulsive landing...

I was limiting myself to booster propulsive landings (reusing a booster engine for landing), but that is a fair point.

Online HVM

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JPL got Skycrane to work first time. That's a propulsive landing...

I'm trying to channel my inner Jim; The SkYCRaNe is A ManEuVer and hoists have been used for thousand of years. You mean the descent stage...

"Sky Crane: Like a large crane on Earth, the sky crane system lowered the rover to a "soft landing" - wheels down - on the surface of Mars." - https://mars.nasa.gov/msl/timeline/edl/


Wait a minute...

Offline rakaydos

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Question- assuming that both Rocketlab and Blue origin successfully develop reusable upper stages for the Neutron and New Glenn, and that both are cheaper per launch, but not cheaper per ton, than the Market Leader's... flagship rocket.

Neutron is aimed at being 5-8 tonnes with lower stage reuse, with an unknown penalty for upper stage reuse but is small enough that parachute+helocopter is a reasonable alternative to legs+landing engines. New Glenn is aimed at 45 tones reusable, but will have a larger penalty for upper stage reuse.

With the market leader claiming bulk payloads, who is in  a better position to eat their scraps? Is Neutron more "right sized" for single launch  performance, or would New Glenn be able to rideshare larger conselations to make up for a higher per-launch cost?

Offline gaballard

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Why do we think reusable second stages are now on the table for all rockets? SpaceX kicked the idea around for Falcon for years and years and it never got off the drawing board because it wasn't feasible. They had to design an entirely new launch system from the ground up to incorporate second stage reuse.

There's a possibility New Glenn is big enough that it might work, but Neutron? I highly doubt it. Second stages are entering at full orbital velocities (i.e. over Mach 20). They need heat shielding, a way to stay aerodynamically stable at those speeds, parachutes (with backups), pyrotechnics to deploy the parachutes, and that's assuming no landing legs or engines.

All of that adds mass, which heavily eats into the second stage's payload margin.

And reuse is a red herring anyway... the most revolutionary thing about the Falcon family was how cheap they were to build. Even in its first expendable configuration the Falcon 9 still undercut everyone else in the market on price. Reuse was icing on that cake.

If Blue isn't doing everything it can to optimize New Glenn for cost and instead are relying on reusability out of the gate to make up the difference... they're gonna have a bad time.
« Last Edit: 04/22/2021 04:38 pm by gaballard »
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Offline TrevorMonty

For Neutron 2nd stage reuse may not decrease $/kg to orbit, might actually increase it. The case for reuse is likely to be in down mass to earth. Space stations especially unmanned manufacturing stations will need both up and down mass.

I see 2nd stage having cargo bay which carries a pressurized cargo pod eg Cygnus without service module. The 2nd stage rendezvous with spacetug carrying downmass  cargo pod and pods a swapped. The space tug then proceeds to spacestation.

Some pods would carry fuel for tug.


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« Last Edit: 04/22/2021 05:22 pm by TrevorMonty »

Offline trimeta

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Why do we think reusable second stages are now on the table for all rockets? SpaceX kicked the idea around for Falcon for years and years and it never got off the drawing board because it wasn't feasible. They had to design an entirely new launch system from the ground up to incorporate second stage reuse.

Was it not feasible, or was it just not on the critical path to Mars? My sense was always that they could have made Falcon 9 fully-reusable, but by the time they solved all the issues in making the first stage rapidly and cheaply reusable, they were already beginning development on Starship, and so didn't want to waste resources improving a vehicle that would be in "legacy support mode" by the time any second-stage reuse experiments started panning out.

Of course, Blue Origin (or Rocket Lab, for that matter) could do the same, choosing to develop a new, fully-reusable-from-the-start vehicle rather than adding second-stage reuse to their existing partially-reusable vehicle. But I think this has more to do with long-term strategies and what rockets they think they'll need in 5-10 years, and less to do with feasibility of adding second-stage reuse to a partially-reusable vehicle.

Quote from: gaballard
And reuse is a red herring anyway... the most revolutionary thing about the Falcon family was how cheap they were to build. Even in its first expendable configuration the Falcon 9 still undercut everyone else in the market on price. Reuse was icing on that cake.

If Blue isn't doing everything it can to optimize New Glenn for cost and instead are relying on reusability out of the gate to make up the difference... they're gonna have a bad time.

Rocket Lab at least has spoken about making Neutron's expendable second stage as affordable as possible, which is consistent with what you're saying. Whether Blue Origin has the capability of making anything affordable is another question.
« Last Edit: 04/22/2021 06:14 pm by trimeta »

Offline jig

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Was it not feasible, or was it just not on the critical path to Mars? My sense was always that they could have made Falcon 9 fully-reusable, but by the time they solved all the issues in making the first stage rapidly and cheaply reusable, they were already beginning development on Starship, and so didn't want to waste resources improving a vehicle that would be in "legacy support mode" by the time any second-stage reuse experiments started panning out.

a little bit of both.  it wasn't feasible within the cost envelope dedicated to F9 development (cost in terms of $$ and time), and it wasn't necessary for the the critical path to humans landing on Mars (which, by its nature, includes some kind of pathway back from Mars).

both RL and BO can only win on overall cost including a reusable 2nd stage if they can develop a reliable 2nd stage within a certain amount of time... SX decided they didn't need a reusable 2nd stage to compete on cost and do the 3 things they wanted to do with F9 - Dragon to IIS, Starlink, cheapest entry into LEO through to GEO for a broad range of payload weights (commercial and govt), for a long enough time that they'd make enough money to complete development of crewed flight to Mars.  so far they seem to have been correct in their eval.

RL is currently borderline cheapest to LEO, but only for rather lightweight payloads.  BO just doesn't have anything working yet, though with Vulcan, at least their engines will compete with relatively heavy payloads to GEO and beyond (mostly govt. stuff) within the next two years.  neither seem to be able to cut into SX's current revenue stream.

SX is doing their best to handwave Starship into a viable LEO->GEO launch competitor in the future, but from my view, they're further away from being able to undercut a much simpler F9 launch than BO is from getting a New Glenn launch vehicle into orbit under a commercial or govt. payload delivery contract.  the lunar transit/lander version of Starship might help the overall Starship development timeline, particularly in terms of the low cost LEO->GEO launches, but then again, maybe not. 

regardless, i still don't really know what the New Glenn will offer that'll bring customers in.  NG'll be competing with Vulcan more than the F9 or even the FHeavy, and I guess it'll be competing with Starship for heavy infrastructure lifts and Lunar transits.  but, it really does seem like they'll only be competitive with Starship until Starship is flying reliably, even if NG has a fully reusable second stage.  it's too hard to say anything meaningful about BO because they've failed to do more than demo future suborbital amusement park rides.

to bring this ramble home, SX's reusable second stage is Starship, and it's doubtful F9 will include one, or will have to include one to be competitive with whatever RL and BO come up with in the next 5 years.  once Starship is reliable, whatever open-contract medium to heavy-lift, reusable second stage booster contracts there are in the world will likely all go to it.  BO needs NG to be launching reliably before Starship for it to have open-contract customers, and BO needs to be developing whatever comes after NG right now.

i used the term "open-contract" when writing about NG strategy.  i believe NG's mainstay and reason for existence will be launching some Amazon or BO owned service, like a Starlink competitor, or commercial space stations.  and, BO will be using Vulcan to start that process while NG continues to be developed.

Offline TrevorMonty

RL vs Blue. SpaceX has nothing to do with this thread.

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Offline rakaydos

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both RL and BO can only win on overall cost including a reusable 2nd stage if they can develop a reliable 2nd stage within a certain amount of time... [the market leader] decided they didn't need a reusable 2nd stage to compete on cost and do the 3 things they wanted to do- so far they seem to have been correct in their eval.

RL is currently borderline cheapest to LEO, but only for rather lightweight payloads.  BO just doesn't have anything working yet, though with Vulcan, at least their engines will compete with relatively heavy payloads to GEO and beyond (mostly govt. stuff) within the next two years.  neither seem to be able to cut into [the market leader's] current revenue stream.

regardless, i still don't really know what the New Glenn will offer that'll bring customers in.  NG'll be competing with Vulcan more than the F9 or even the FHeavy, and I guess it'll be competing with Starship for heavy infrastructure lifts and Lunar transits.  but, it really does seem like they'll only be competitive with Starship until Starship is flying reliably, even if NG has a fully reusable second stage.  it's too hard to say anything meaningful about BO because they've failed to do more than demo future suborbital amusement park rides.

to bring this ramble home, once [the market leader's new project] is reliable, whatever open-contract medium to heavy-lift, reusable second stage booster contracts there are in the world will likely all go to it.  BO needs NG to be launching reliably before [that project] for it to have open-contract customers, and BO needs to be developing whatever comes after NG right now.

i used the term "open-contract" when writing about NG strategy.  i believe NG's mainstay and reason for existence will be launching some Amazon or BO owned service, like a Starlink competitor, or commercial space stations.  and, BO will be using Vulcan to start that process while NG continues to be developed.
Some interesting points here about Blue's strategy, but not much how it related to Neutron.

Offline panjabi

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<snip>

And reuse is a red herring anyway... the most revolutionary thing about the Falcon family was how cheap they were to build. Even in its first expendable configuration the Falcon 9 still undercut everyone else in the market on price. Reuse was icing on that cake.

<snip>

Yes and No.  Yes, at the end of the day, you are correct that reducing cost of building a rocket was more important (atleast in the short term), however, getting every part of the launch vehicle  re-usable will, in the longer term, result in lower costs. There is a reason SpaceX has worked hard on re-using the fairings.  The issue about the second stage in Falcon 9 was that the rocket was not designed from the ground up to have a reusable 2nd stage and redesigning and retrofitting it did not pass the ROI test, with SS/SH on the way.

I would predict that moving forward all the NewSpace companies will design fully re-usable rocket families. Another point that will increasingly come into play is the environmental one. As the launch cadence increases, there is going to be increasing pushback into dumping second stages (or what is left of them) into the drink.

Offline jig

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RL vs Blue. SpaceX has nothing to do with this thread.

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it's just hard to talk about which has the better business strategy without talking about their main competitor.

focused just on RL vs. BO, i think RL's business strategy (including their push to reduce costs through reusability) is great for the short term, but it's unclear whether they can beef up their payload capacity and stay competitive on cost as their future development comes to fruition.  they have a good shot, but unclear if they can leverage what they have now to larger payloads while deorbiting and reusing a second stage traveling at 27,000kmph and large enough to handle the competitive payloads.

BO's strategy in the short term is almost non-existent - they are currently just a part supplier and prototype developer.  in the long term, however, they've set their sights on being the sole vendor for some really big commercial orbital launch projects.  commercial space station development, perhaps leading to orbital construction stations (for ships, space station modules, etc.)... that's a huge deal, potentially, though it gets messy if you try to separate Amazon's interests from BO's specific interests.

they both have niches they can service to good effect, with enough revenue to continue prototype development indefinitely.  that said, BO's plan is ending up just so darn slow to show real successes...

Offline trimeta

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BO's strategy in the short term is almost non-existent - they are currently just a part supplier and prototype developer.  in the long term, however, they've set their sights on being the sole vendor for some really big commercial orbital launch projects.  commercial space station development, perhaps leading to orbital construction stations (for ships, space station modules, etc.)... that's a huge deal, potentially, though it gets messy if you try to separate Amazon's interests from BO's specific interests.

The problem with that long-term strategy is that that market doesn't actually exist. Sure, it's a chicken-and-egg thing (no one's building payloads that require a New Glenn-class launcher because there are no New Glenn-class launchers), but you also can't depend on "if you build it, they will come." The real answer is "build your own payloads," as (yes) SpaceX is doing, but also as Rocket Lab will likely do with a constellation-in-a-box service designed to increased demand for medium-class launch services. Blue Origin should also be developing payloads, things for New Glenn to carry, but they're so far behind on New Glenn they haven't had time to work on that. It means that even when New Glenn starts launching, it'll be many more years until they have payloads which justify the rocket.
« Last Edit: 05/14/2021 06:23 am by trimeta »

Offline Darkseraph

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BO's strategy in the short term is almost non-existent - they are currently just a part supplier and prototype developer.  in the long term, however, they've set their sights on being the sole vendor for some really big commercial orbital launch projects.  commercial space station development, perhaps leading to orbital construction stations (for ships, space station modules, etc.)... that's a huge deal, potentially, though it gets messy if you try to separate Amazon's interests from BO's specific interests.

The problem with that long-term strategy is that that market doesn't actually exist. Sure, it's a chicken-and-egg thing (no one's building payloads that require a New Glenn-class launcher because there are no New Glenn-class launchers), but you also can't depend on "if you build it, they will come." The real answer is "build your own payloads," as (yes) SpaceX is doing, but also as Rocket Lab will likely do with a constellation-in-a-box service designed to increased demand for medium-class launch services. Blue Origin should also be developing payloads, things for New Glenn to carry, but they're so far behind on New Glenn they haven't had time to work on that. It means that even when New Glenn starts launching, it'll be many more years until they have payloads which justify the rocket.

Building your own payloads because you're not sure if there actually is a demand for your launch vehicle is compounding your original error, if there is in fact no demand for those payloads and will leave you financially much worse off than if you had just stuck to running a low launch frequency vehicle at current market prices. SpaceX didn't invent Starlink to justify launching Falcon 9 more, Falcon 9 being cheap and reusable allows a project like Starlink to me far more feasible. The reason Musk stated for going into Starlink was to fund their Mars ambitions as there really isn't all that much revenue in just launching payloads, space applications are where the real money is!

Blue Origin and Rocketlab's pursuit of their new vehicles is based on addressing existing markets and enabling potential future ones. They're servicing applications that are likely to make money, more money than the launch vehicles themselves will make. Kuiper definitely wasn't invented to justify New Glenn launching more and Neutron is similarly there to address a practical economic problem. Anything else is either 'turtle logic' or some version of the classic broken windows fallacy.

The fact that the capabilities of these vehicles will enable new capabilities in the future is just an awesome side-benefit, it's not essential for these vehicles to operate in the market.
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Online Robotbeat

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trimeta and others:

New Glenn isnít actually that big. Its performance to, say, c3= 7km2/s2 (Mars?) is only 8% more than Atlas V 551.

Neutron, if stretched and upgraded like Falcon 9, could beat that expendable. And, with a high energy upper stage, potentially even partially reusably (although New Glenn could also be upgraded).

For some reason, people act like New Glenn is almost a Saturn V-like beast. But itís not. Itís EELV Heavy with, say, 10% margin and a larger standard fairing (Atlas V also has the option of a 7.2m fairing... but the customer would have to pay for development). Atlas V Heavy wouldíve beat its performance to high energy.

So Neutron is going to be competing in the same field. Particularly if weíre talking about constellations where you just choose the number of satellites to launch based off the rocket payload.

New Glenn also will have plenty of payloads that could launch on it as it isnít this massive over-sized rocket and, of course, being partially reusable should be competitive with smaller expendable rockets (like Vulcan or Ariane 6, etc) even if some performance is ďwasted.Ē

Quit talking about New Glenn like itís SLS or Saturn V and therefore canít affordably launch existing payload classes.
« Last Edit: 05/14/2021 02:00 pm by Robotbeat »
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Offline trimeta

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Building your own payloads because you're not sure if there actually is a demand for your launch vehicle is compounding your original error, if there is in fact no demand for those payloads and will leave you financially much worse off than if you had just stuck to running a low launch frequency vehicle at current market prices. SpaceX didn't invent Starlink to justify launching Falcon 9 more, Falcon 9 being cheap and reusable allows a project like Starlink to me far more feasible. The reason Musk stated for going into Starlink was to fund their Mars ambitions as there really isn't all that much revenue in just launching payloads, space applications are where the real money is!

Blue Origin and Rocketlab's pursuit of their new vehicles is based on addressing existing markets and enabling potential future ones. They're servicing applications that are likely to make money, more money than the launch vehicles themselves will make. Kuiper definitely wasn't invented to justify New Glenn launching more and Neutron is similarly there to address a practical economic problem. Anything else is either 'turtle logic' or some version of the classic broken windows fallacy.

The fact that the capabilities of these vehicles will enable new capabilities in the future is just an awesome side-benefit, it's not essential for these vehicles to operate in the market.

If you just want to launch a couple of times a year, sure, you can depend on the market to have enough missions for you. But if you're building a reusable, high-cadence vehicle, you can't expect to simply make that capacity available and suddenly have your orders book fill up. Customers build satellites and companies around current extant launch capabilities: if you plan to dramatically increase global launch capability, at best the market will lag by years before actually building out payloads.

Look at Electron, for example. It was supposed to be launching monthly by now, if not more, but despite claims for years that small satellites are an "emerging future market," Rocket Lab still has difficulty finding customers who can build a satellite on time and without it failing in orbit. It's true that one advantage of dedicated small-launch vs. rideshare is "if we're three months late to deliver the payload to the launch provider, we don't miss our ride," so in one sense this helps Rocket Lab. But if they want to hit the high cadences they've discussed, they need to build their own satellites, and then sell these as platforms for customers to use. Which they're doing, with Photon.

If Blue Origin wants to launch communications satellites a couple of times a year, as companies throw them contracts to try and maintain a competitive marketplace, they don't need to build their own payloads. But if they want to launch regularly, they need to be actively expanding that market. Sure, building and launching payloads which are themselves unprofitable doesn't help here, but if Blue Origin can't find profitable things to put atop New Glenn, how do you expect anyone else to? They've had 20 years to envision how a heavy-lift vehicle would enable a future with millions of people living and working in space: surely they think there's some profit to be made there.

(Side-note, I find it funny that you start a paragraph by saying "How can you say they should build payloads, building an unprofitable payload just compounds the problem of building an unprofitable launcher" and end it saying "SpaceX started building payloads because that's where the profit is." If payloads are where the real money is, then wouldn't "building your own payloads" be a good strategy for making money? Wouldn't that make perfect sense as a thing Blue Origin might want to do?)

If New Glenn is supposed to carry "really big commercial orbital launch projects, commercial space station development, [and] orbital construction stations," a market which doesn't currently exist, they can't expect those payloads to materialize overnight. They need to make it happen. Unless they're willing to settle for only launching the types of commercial payloads that (for example) the Ariane 5 launches, with the same cadence.

Offline trimeta

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trimeta and others:

New Glenn isnít actually that big. Its performance to, say, c3= 7km2/s2 (Mars?) is only 8% more than Atlas V 551.

Neutron, if stretched and upgraded like Falcon 9, could beat that expendable. And, with a high energy upper stage, potentially even partially reusably (although New Glenn could also be upgraded).

For some reason, people act like New Glenn is almost a Saturn V-like beast. But itís not. Itís EELV Heavy with, say, 10% margin and a larger standard fairing (Atlas V also has the option of a 7.2m fairing... but the customer would have to pay for development). Atlas V Heavy wouldíve beat its performance to high energy.

So Neutron is going to be competing in the same field. Particularly if weíre talking about constellations where you just choose the number of satellites to launch based off the rocket payload.

New Glenn also will have plenty of payloads that could launch on it as it isnít this massive over-sized rocket and, of course, being partially reusable should be competitive with smaller expendable rockets (like Vulcan or Ariane 6, etc) even if some performance is ďwasted.Ē

Quit talking about New Glenn like itís SLS or Saturn V and therefore canít affordably launch existing payload classes.

You're right that it's not some massive expensive launcher, that it can compete for the same launches Vulcan and Ariane 6 will be going after, probably undercutting both of those on price. But that's not a huge market, basically just enough launches to keep the market competitive, while still putting most things on top of SpaceX rockets. If that's all that New Glenn can do, if it doesn't substantively increase the market, it'll be lucky to launch four times a year, tops. And it won't enable the "millions of people living and working in space" vision that Blue Origin talks about.

Online Robotbeat

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Launching 7 times per year is not a massive disappointment compared to 12 launches per year, taken with perspective.

Remember how long it took for SpaceX to achieve any kind of reasonable cadence with Falcon? RocketLab is doing above par on making their rocket into a workhorse.

Blueís problem isnít the market. If they had New Glenn flying by now, they would be able to launch plenty of satellites from OneWeb and Kuiper and others. The problem is their execution.
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Offline ncb1397

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trimeta and others:

New Glenn isnít actually that big. Its performance to, say, c3= 7km2/s2 (Mars?) is only 8% more than Atlas V 551.

Neutron, if stretched and upgraded like Falcon 9, could beat that expendable. And, with a high energy upper stage, potentially even partially reusably (although New Glenn could also be upgraded).

For some reason, people act like New Glenn is almost a Saturn V-like beast. But itís not. Itís EELV Heavy with, say, 10% margin and a larger standard fairing (Atlas V also has the option of a 7.2m fairing... but the customer would have to pay for development). Atlas V Heavy wouldíve beat its performance to high energy.

So Neutron is going to be competing in the same field. Particularly if weíre talking about constellations where you just choose the number of satellites to launch based off the rocket payload.

New Glenn also will have plenty of payloads that could launch on it as it isnít this massive over-sized rocket and, of course, being partially reusable should be competitive with smaller expendable rockets (like Vulcan or Ariane 6, etc) even if some performance is ďwasted.Ē

Quit talking about New Glenn like itís SLS or Saturn V and therefore canít affordably launch existing payload classes.

You're right that it's not some massive expensive launcher, that it can compete for the same launches Vulcan and Ariane 6 will be going after, probably undercutting both of those on price. But that's not a huge market, basically just enough launches to keep the market competitive, while still putting most things on top of SpaceX rockets. If that's all that New Glenn can do, if it doesn't substantively increase the market, it'll be lucky to launch four times a year, tops. And it won't enable the "millions of people living and working in space" vision that Blue Origin talks about.

You only need to launch a few people off earth annually to enable millions of people living and working in space. For instance, assuming a start in 2040, a natural rate of increase equivalent to the U.S. of 4.3 and 4 "immigrants" per year. The  off world population breaks 1 million next millenium.

Offline trimeta

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Launching 7 times per year is not a massive disappointment compared to 12 launches per year, taken with perspective.

Remember how long it took for SpaceX to achieve any kind of reasonable cadence with Falcon? RocketLab is doing above par on making their rocket into a workhorse.

Blueís problem isnít the market. If they had New Glenn flying by now, they would be able to launch plenty of satellites from OneWeb and Kuiper and others. The problem is their execution.

I think even that would be wildly optimistic for New Glenn. If they're trying to undercut not just Vulcan/Ariane 6 but also Soyuz, then they're necessarily competing for exactly the same launches Neutron is carrying, while being more expensive than Neutron. So they can only win those launches up until Neutron comes online (which admittedly would have been a longer time interval if it weren't for their execution). After that, their only payloads will be "too heavy for Neutron and doesn't want to fly with SpaceX for some reason." Which is probably at least one or two launches per year, but seven would require winning something like 80% of the combined Atlas/Delta/Vulcan/Ariane market. (And we haven't even seen evidence of vertical integration, so taking NRO sats from Vulcan may be a tall order.)

Basically, they're at best five years from getting squeezed from both ends -- and they're only going to start launching in three years. This isn't a situation either SpaceX or Rocket Lab found themselves in. (Well, Astra and one of Virgin Orbit/Firefly/ABL/Relativity may put that squeeze on Rocket Lab, but that's part of why they're developing Neutron, to escape.) I wouldn't expect New Glenn to find anywhere near as many payloads as either Falcon 9 or Electron did: if it takes Blue Origin four years from first launch to ramp up to seven launches/year, they don't have four years before the market will fall out on them. If you want to say "that's because of their execution," that moving faster would have given them more time in that market, sure. But it means that as it is, when it comes online, Blue Origin won't have much market.
« Last Edit: 05/14/2021 03:20 pm by trimeta »

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