One of the things I’ve believed for a long time is that for the NewSpace industry to be successful and healthy, that we need to see multiple providers and customers for the various goods and services in the industry. One needs look no further than the situation with Aerojet/Rocketdyne and ULA to realize how unhealthy monopoly/monopsony arrangements can be. In an ideal, healthy industry, we’d see several competitive low-cost launch companies offering a range of launch services, multiple companies building in-space facilities like hotels, stations, unmanned free-flyers, and depots, etc.
Having multiple providers and multiple customers is good for many reasons:
- Resiliency: If you have multiple providers and customers, problems with one entity don’t necessarily grind the industry to a halt. An example of this was how badly ISS was impacted by the Shuttle fleet stand-down post Columbia. There was also the close-call with Soyuz a year or two ago, where it wasn’t clear if they were going to have to stand-down crew deliveries to the station. On the customer side, technologies and consumer preferences change over time, so having a wide range of customers means that if one particular application stops being as viable, it doesn’t take down the industry with it. In general, more providers and more customers makes any one entity less critical, and makes the industry more robust.
- Competition: Having multiple providers to chose from often helps keep an industry innovating, and keeps costs lower than if there were just one provider. Think how good it was for computer users to have both AMD and Intel competing with each other for much of the past 20 years. Would Intel have moved as aggressively at innovating, and would costs have been as low for consumers without them?
- Diversity and Specialization: One size doesn’t fit all, and the more firms there are in an industry, the more likely you are to see specialization leading to better solutions for people with different needs.
The interested reader could probably think of other reasons why it’s good to have a range of providers.
Now admittedly, while having a range of providers and a range of customers is ideal, not all industries are large enough to support that level of diversity. Some tend towards “natural monopolies”. I think at current launch costs, reasonable people can differ on if space launch falls into that category or not. But I think we can all agree we’d like to see a space industry that has a big enough pie to make that sort of healthy diversity possible.
Why am I bringing this all up? Mostly because I’ve been noticing an unhealthy trend towards monoculturalism/”Highlander Syndrome” among many in the NewSpace community. You see this a lot in twitter commenters who seem to think the government should just ditch ULA and give all their flights to SpaceX, or the anger over why NASA picked Boeing as well for a CCtCap award even though they were more expensive than SpaceX. You see this in how people only ever talk about Bigelow Aerospace for in-space habitats. You see this with people badmouthing Masten or Blue Origin and saying that they should give up now because obviously SpaceX is better.Now, I actually like SpaceX and Bigelow a lot, have a ton of respect for what Elon’s team has managed to do over the years, and really genuinely want to see both of those companies wildly successful. But I want to see others successful too. In many cases there isn’t a huge amount I can actively do, since Altius isn’t very involved anymore on the launch side of things, so my support may be limited to trying to cheer on progress by not just SpaceX, but ULA, and Blue Origin as well. I do what I can to put ideas out there that can benefit everyone, and to work on technologies at Altius that can help more than one provider be competitive. I’ve always preferred to run a shop with a reputation for being on friendly terms with everyone as much as possible.Anyhow, I hope others find these thoughts useful.