Demonstrating a level of flexibility that no other commercial launch provider on Earth can likely match, SpaceX and OneWeb have entered into a major launch contract barely three weeks after Russia kicked the satellite internet company off of its Soyuz rockets.
Beginning in early 2020, OneWeb has launched approximately 430 operational small internet satellites – about two-thirds of its first constellation – on a dozen different Russian Soyuz 2.1b and ST-B rockets, including a mission completed as recently as February 10th, 2022. That nominal – albeit slow – deployment ground to a violent halt alongside Russia’s second unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, 2022. Within a week, extraordinary Western economic sanctions pushed the unstable head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency to retaliate by both ending the practice of European-owned Soyuz launches and holding OneWeb’s 13th operational launch hostage.
Another three weeks later, outside of increasingly tense and reluctant cooperation on the International Space Station, the relationship between Russian and Western spaceflight programs has effectively ceased to exist. That includes all 6-7 of OneWeb’s remaining Soyuz launch contracts, each of which the company had already paid more than $50 million for. Though OneWeb technicians were able to escape the increasingly hostile country, Russia effectively repossessed (i.e. stole) OneWeb’s remaining rockets and its 13th batch of operational satellites.
That left OneWeb in an unsurprisingly precarious situation. Having already gone bankrupt once, a major delay could be financially catastrophic for the company. Normally, procuring half a dozen near-term launch contracts at the last second would be virtually impossible. Indeed, ignoring a certain US company, no other launch provider on Earth could even theoretically find or build enough capacity to launch the last third of OneWeb’s constellation without at least a one or two-year delay. Luckily for OneWeb, SpaceX does exist.
As discussed in a March 2nd Teslarati newsletter, SpaceX is extraordinarily unique in a sea of expendable, outdated rockets.
“SpaceX – a direct competitor that is far more vertically integrated than OneWeb and has suffered no major issues from Russian sanctions – may be OneWeb’s only near-term option for its orphaned satellites. The only obvious alternative would be to self-inflict what could be years of delays to avoid SpaceX purely out of spite and instead wait for space to open up on the manifests of companies like Arianespace and ULA or for even less available rockets from India or Japan.
SpaceX has plans for as many as 52+ Falcon launches in 2022, many of which are Starlink missions that the company might be willing to partially replace with a handful of lucrative launches for OneWeb.”
Teslarati – March 2nd, 2022
Because of SpaceX’s exceptional vertical integration and decision to launch its own Starlink internet satellites, which directly compete with OneWeb, the company has dozens of flexible launches planned over the next year or two that it can feasibly convert into commercial missions. No other international launch provider on Earth has the ability to scavenge its own internal manifest to effectively create capacity for last-second commercial demand out of thin air.
At the cost of a handful of Starlink launches, of which SpaceX already has close to 2100 working satellites in orbit, the company will be able to almost heroically step in and complete OneWeb’s constellation, allowing the company to avoid a potential multi-year delay if forced to use other providers.
In fact, due to Europe’s chronic lack of domestic launch capacity as a result of years of Ariane 6 delays, even some institutional European satellites orphaned by Russia’s actions may ultimately be moved to SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets to avoid lengthy launch delays. All told, OneWeb has offered no specific details about the cost, the number of total missions procured, or any other changes implemented in its new SpaceX contract, but the company says it could begin launches as early as this summer – a truly extraordinary demonstration of flexibility from both OneWeb and SpaceX.