SpaceX’s biggest competitor isn’t in the US, which is probably why you’ve never heard of them. They’re a French-based company called Arianespace.
They specialize in the production, operation, and sale of rockets, like their Ariane 5 rocket — their most powerful launch vehicle — shown in the image to the right.
Even though you might be unfamiliar with this space company, they have been launching rockets into space for over 30 years — long before Elon Musk founded his private space company SpaceX in 2002.
When it was founded in 1980 (when Musk was just 9 years old), Arianespace became the world’s first commercial provider of launch vehicles to help boost satellites into orbit.
Arianespace has dominated the market for launch vehicles until only recently. In 2004, for example, they held over 50% of the world market.
Today, Arianespace has three different launch vehicles, the most powerful of which is their Ariane 5. In comparison, SpaceX has two launch vehicles: the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9.
The Ariane 5 can carry a payload of 44,000 pounds into low-earth orbit — where the International Space Station orbits — while the latest Falcon 9 version can carry a little over half that at 28,000 pounds. But the Falcon 9 has an advantage: it’s much cheaper.
In 2013 SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket was the cheapest launch vehicle on the market. You could buy one for just $US56.5 million. The Ariane 5, by comparison, cost a hefty $US200 million, according to Spaceflight 101.
Is the company making a comeback?
This enormous cost difference put a great deal of pressure on Arianespace, and they have been taking big steps to stay in competition with SpaceX ever since.
For example, in June of last year, Arianespace teamed up with Airbus Group and French engine maker Safran to “propose a new family of competitive, versatile and efficient space launchers,” the two companies announced.
Arianespace also said that they would offer more flexible prices for some of their future launches. Since 2015, the company has successfully launched two payloads into space while SpaceX has launched four.
Right now, SpaceX is still leading the way in commercial spaceflight with lower costs and a higher number of 2015 launches, but it will have to stay on its toes if it wants to compete with the well-accomplished, experienced Arianespace.
Game-changing reusable rockets
One thing that would put SpaceX ahead of the game is if they can successfully reuse their rockets, which SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell has said could reduce the cost of launching Falcon 9 rockets from tens of millions to just $US5 to $US7 million.
Right now, they’re attempting to do this by landing the first stage of their Falcon 9 rockets on a floating platform, shown in the image above. So far, the first two landing attempts made this year have been unsuccessful.
As of this January, Arianespace has not designed any of their rockets for reuse.
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