Not too long ago executives in the global commercial launch business were insisting that three’s a crowd. In other words, things would be better, and the industry healthier, if there were only two providers: the one doing the talking at any given time

and one of the other two.

This was of course before the Jan. 30 failure that grounded Sea Launch’s Zenit 3SL rocket in a year in which manifests were tight to begin with. Now, following the Sept. 6 failure of a commercial Proton-M rocket, any suggestion that the market is overcrowded seems like crazy talk, especially to satellite owners, some of whom are facing potentially costly delays.

Sea Launch hopes to resume launching in October; it remains to be seen how long International Launch Services, which markets the Russian-built Proton commercially, will be out of action. Arianespace, the other major commercial provider of geostationary launch services,

is heavily booked for the next two years.

The situation is reminiscent of the one more than a decade ago that led Hughes Space and Communications Co., then the dominant player in commercial satellite manufacturing, to sign a 10-launch contract with McDonnell Douglas Corp. that gave birth to a new rocket, the Delta 3. That deal did not turn out very well for either company, both of which are now part of Boeing.

The story was much the same for a number of others who bet heavily on what was then seen as a booming launch market. Among them was the U.S. Air Force, which helped fund both Boeing’s Delta 4 and Lockheed Martin’s Atlas 5 rockets on the assumption that commercial business would keep down the unit cost of these vehicles. When the projected boom went bust, the Air Force was left with huge bills to pay.

About the only certainties in the commercial launch market are that demand is cyclical and supply is event-sensitive. In some years, three primary providers are enough – even too many; in others, three clearly is insufficient. Which probably means three is the right number provided there is some sort of safety valve, ideally in the form of a government provider that on occasion can provide a commercial vehicle on relatively short notice.

China certainly would like to re-enter this market, and India has designs as well, but for the time being only a very small fraction of the market is available to them. That leaves Atlas 5 and Delta 4 as the most likely candidates, especially if prices continue to trend upward as they have in the past two years. These vehicles are manufactured and sold to the U.S. government by the joint Boeing-Lockheed Martin venture dubbed United Launch Alliance but offered separately – the Delta 4 by Boeing, the Atlas 5 by Lockheed – on the commercial market.

Both rockets are booked solid for now, meaning neither company has been able to handle any of the commercial overflow. All parties, including the Air Force, would benefit if Boeing and Lockheed can figure out a way to position themselves – perhaps in concert with satellite owners whose delays are a frequent source of launch-manifest disruption – to take advantage the next time the opportunity presents itself, as it undoubtedly will.