Having another cargo carrier would provide a safety net for the ISS. That need was made clear when Dragon’s thrusters initially failed during the flight last week, almost preventing the spacecraft from docking with the station. But there is skepticism about whether competition will drive down prices. “This is a mixed-up crazy business and a small market that isn’t all that price sensitive,” says Henry Hertzfeld, a space-policy expert at George Washington University in Washington DC.
Factors such as political or military concerns often shape demand, he says. And reliability is as much of a concern as price. The market could grow: private space stations, orbiting fuel depots and asteroid-mining operations have all been proposed as future clients for commercial rockets. But for now, supplying the ISS and launching satellites are the major niches.
SpaceX is making inroads with the latter: it has contracts for launches with the US Air Force and commercial operators in Israel, Thailand, Luxembourg and Mexico. Orbital, too, wants to develop business beyond NASA, but it has not yet booked any launches. “Right now, we’re focused on getting the rocket launched,” says Frank Culbertson, executive vice-president of Orbital’s advanced-programs group. “Then we can talk to other customers.”