For all the talk of a space race 2.0 involving the U.S., Russia, and China, a civil war might be brewing within the U.S. space industry.
Last week, we wrote about reports that NASA officials, as well as third-party contractors building rockets for the U.S. space agency, were "shitting the bed" due to the advanced capabilities of SpaceX's Starship launch vehicle.
It begs, the question: what are SpaceX's competitors up to, and are they really in danger of falling so far behind?
Why are SpaceX's competitors reportedly worried?
SpaceX's fully reusable Starship, slated to make its first orbital flight this year, will likely launch at a fraction of the cost of NASA's in-development SLS rocket. NASA estimates that a mission with SLS will cost about $2 billion per launch, while SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced in a recent presentation that a Starship mission could cost a comparatively low $1 million.
Not only that, Starship will likely become the first rocket capable of launching to the moon and Mars and back. One top Washington space lobbyist, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Politico that SpaceX's competitors "are shitting the bed" over Starship's capacity to break new ground at a lower cost.
Once Starship is operational, it will be able to launch 300,000 lbs (136,077 kg) to low Earth orbit (LEO), and the first orbital launch is expected for early 2022 — possibly as soon as next month. But what are SpaceX's competitors developing, and how do their efforts compare to Starship? Are they really falling so far behind?
The United Launch Alliance's Vulcan Centaur
The United Launch Alliance (ULA) aims to send its next-generation rocket, called Vulcan Centaur, up to orbit this year in a mission called "Enterprise". That mission will scatter 'Star Trek' creator Gene Roddenberry's ashes in space. In December, Ars Technica reported that delays to deliveries of Blue Origin's BE-4 rocket engine, which will power Vulcan Centaur, might cause the launch to slip back into 2023.
Powered by a pair of BE-4s, Vulcan will reportedly be capable of launching 60,000 lbs (27,200 kg) to low Earth orbit while achieving a nominal thrust of 550,000 lbs at sea level. Future launches include the maiden "Enterprise" mission and a mission to send a lunar lander by private firm Astrobotics to the moon.
Blue Origin's New Glenn
Last year, Blue Origin delayed the maiden flight of its massive New Glenn rocket, citing the U.S. Space Force's decision not to use New Glenn to launch national security payloads. Reports say Blue Origin is currently working towards an internal target of a 2023 launch for New Glenn, though the company officially says it is aiming to launch in Q4 of 2022.
New Glenn will be able to launch payloads of 90,000 lbs (40,823 kg) to low Earth orbit using seven of the company's reusable BE-4 engines, which will enable the rocket's first stage to generate 3.85 million lbf (more than 17 million newtons) of thrust at sea level.
NASA's Space Launch System
NASA's Space Launch System (SLS), designed in collaboration with Boeing, has so far cost nearly triple the $10-billion projected development cost when it was first announced in 2011. Before the rocket's first flight, NASA has already had to announce a development upheaval to greatly reduce the cost of future models and launches. SLS will carry a payload capacity of 190,000 lbs (86 tons) up to LEO. The much-delayed rocket is expected to make its first flight at some point in March or April 2022.
Concerns also exist over the rocket's predicted launch cadence compared to Starship. Last week, aerospace engineer and consultant Rand Simberg told Politico, "once [Starship's] reliability is demonstrated with a large number of flights, which could happen in a matter of months, it will obsolesce all existing launch systems."
"If SLS is not going to fly more than once every couple of years, it's just not going to be a significant player in the future in space, particularly when Starship is flown," Simberg continued.
While the claim that all other rocket programs in the U.S. will become obsolete is likely exaggerated — Starship hasn't launched to orbit yet and Elon Musk has a track record of overpromising — a side-by-side comparison does show that SpaceX is undeniably ahead of the curve and that its competition has some catching up to do.