SpaceX’s Starship launch vehicle elicits strong opinions. Take, for example, Toni Tolker-Nielsen, ESA’s director of space transportation. Asked in a SpaceNews interview about how Starship might affect Europe’s Ariane 6, he was dismissive. “Honestly, I don’t think Starship will be a game-changer or a real competitor,” he said, concluding that Starship was oversized for the types of satellites that would fly on Ariane 6. “Starship will not eradicate Ariane 6 at all.”

The response on social media to those comments was one of ridicule and derision. The most charitable responses suggested that Europe was making the same mistake it did a decade ago when it ignored the Falcon 9 — now the world’s leading launch vehicle. Other responses weren’t nearly as polite.

However, Tolker-Nielsen is not an outlier. Many in the launch industry on both sides of the Atlantic are skeptical that Starship will dominate the industry and force competitors out of business, at least over the next several years.

One is that other launch companies don’t see Starship competing head-to-head with them for a while. “The first coming three to four years, their primary mission for Starship is going to be to launch the Starlink constellation,” said Steven Rutgers, chief commercial officer of Arianespace, “and, number two, is the NASA lunar program.”

Rutgers, speaking on a Washington Space Business Roundtable panel June 25, said only later would Starship start to compete for commercial satellite launches. “Yes, it will probably have an impact on the perception of price per kilogram in some segments, but we are confident that customer segments that we’re focusing on will continue to work with us.”

Another argument is that Starship is optimized for missions to low Earth orbit, with refueling likely required to send large payloads to higher orbits. “Starship is really good to get a large mass to LEO,” said Clint Hunt, director of intelligence and defense programs at ULA, at the panel. “If you want to go do direct inject to GEO, there may be a better option for you than Starship.”

“How are we differentiated? Well, Falcon and Starship are rockets optimized for LEO operations,” said Tory Bruno, CEO of ULA, in a call with reporters June 26 about plans for his company’s second Vulcan launch. He argued Vulcan was optimized for high-energy missions. “We’re competing quite well.”

Starship is a “hyper-example” of a rocket optimized for LEO, he continued. “We’re competing now with that differentiation and with our flexibility. That’s how we won the largest commercial space contract in history with Amazon.”

Those are fair points, but only go so far. Even ULA acknowledges that demand for those high-energy missions comes primarily from a handful of government customers, while interest in LEO continues to grow as megaconstellations overshadow GEO satellites. And, if SpaceX can ramp up Starship launches like it has for the Falcon 9, one can imagine plenty of openings in the manifest for customers other than Starlink and Artemis.

One thing the competition isn’t counting on is for Starship to fail. “Early in my career, I remember hearing every day about all the reasons Falcon wouldn’t work and Dragon wouldn’t work, and here we are today,” said Andy Bunker, vice president of government operations and business strategy at Rocket Lab, at the roundtable. “They’ll get there.”

“It’s good for industry to have a diversity of options. It’s good for people to be pushing in different directions to see what works,” he continued. He added he did not expect Starship to hurt Rocket Lab any more than Falcon. “Transporter and Bandwagon exist to drive Rocket Lab out of business,” he said of SpaceX’s rideshare programs, “and Electrons have never been selling faster.”

“I caution against saying they still have a long way to go because every time we’ve made that mistake in the past, they will be there. They will be ready. It will work,” said Arianespace’s Rutgers of SpaceX’s Starship development, acknowledging that his company and others dismissed SpaceX in the past. “I caution against hubris, so we have to constantly improve ourselves.”

This article first appeared in the July 2024 issue of SpaceNews Magazine.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...