The commercial rideshare model for spacefaring cargo is increasingly popular, and for good reason: It lowers the cost of launching something to space even further than companies like SpaceX have managed by splitting the available space on a rocket among multiple customers. Last August, SpaceX announced that it would be offering dedicated "rideshare" missions for customers using its Falcon 9 launch vehicle, but at FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Conference this year, Rocket Lab VP of Global Commercial Launch Services Shane Fleming wanted to remind people that his company still believes their offering is likely the better option for most smallsat operators.
"SpaceX has been around for some time now obviously, but rideshare has not," explained Fleming during a panel on space startups and VC. "There have been heavy launch vehicles around for quite some time, and small CubeSat customers and microsat customers have always had a challenge getting to orbit because they're not the top priority. The top priority is a big geosat [geostationary satellite] mission, or national security mission, and those CubeSat customers, or rideshare customers are just hitching a ride essentially, to space, using a bus analogy. So today, customers with those specific smallsat needs haven't really had the luxury of really tailored, dedicated small launch services like we provide at Rocket Lab."
SpaceX has said that its smallsat customers taking part in rideshare missions can send payloads of either up to 330 lbs for as little as $2.25 million, or 660 lbs for just $4.5 million, which is a big discount when compared to the cost of a full Falcon 9 launch. Rocket Lab's base price for a dedicated launch begins at just $5.7 million, and splitting the cost would obviously drop that further still. But Fleming says that price isn't actually the central issue when comparing the services.
"Whether SpaceX is dropping its prices or not, that service is still relatively the same and SpaceX has a number of priorities -- they're doing human missions, and doing national security missions, and they're doing Starlink," Fleming said. "Yes, they are offering rideshare services, but it's not their business. At Rocket Lab smallsat customers are our number one business, and that's what we do. We offer very dedicated, tailored service exactly where you want to go, when you want to go, and for a lot of customers that's really important. And we also offer a lot more orbital inclinations; not everyone wants to go to SSO; there are orbits that are more unique than that where customers need to go in and we fulfill that. So whether they drop their price or not, it's really a service-backed industry and that's what we're supporting."
Rocket Lab has a lot more activity coming up this year that could help it further differentiate its offerings, including its first Photon mission, which is a new in-house spacecraft the company is developing to offer essentially satellite-as-a-service capabilities to its customers, so that they can focus on just working out the sensor payload or specific mission they want to accomplish, and leave the satellite building to Rocket Lab. It's also continuing to work on its plan for recovering and reusing its Electron booster stage, and aims to recover its first stage for re-use later this year.