Successful launch of the SES-8 commercial communications satellite by Space Exploration Technologies' (SpaceX) Falcon 9 v1.1 booster on Dec. 3 could signal a seismic shift in the launch-vehicle market. Not only was the launch SpaceX's first for a commercial payload to a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), it was another step toward coveted certification of the Falcon 9 to compete for lucrative U.S. government launches under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program long exclusively held by United Launch Alliance (ULA).

With the third Falcon 9 v1.1 launch, and second commercial mission (carrying Thaicom 6), planned for late December, SpaceX could be close to meeting the U.S. Air Force requirements for certification of the launch vehicle. At stake are 14 launches the Air Force has set aside for competitive procurement—a move intended, along with the first-ever “block buy” of 36 core stages with ULA, to tame escalating EELV costs.

To give SpaceX a chance to demonstrate its capabilities, the Air Force has awarded the company two EELV-class missions: the Deep Space Climate Observatory, to be launched by Falcon 9 in late 2014; and the Space Test Program 2 satellite on the still-to-fly Falcon Heavy in mid-2015. SpaceX is expected to be certified to compete with ULA as early as 2015, for launches to begin in 2017.

A Boeing/Lockheed Martin joint company, ULA produces the Alta V and Delta IV launch vehicles. In a bid to bring down costs in the face of budget cuts and competition, the company has priced the block buy aggressively, basing pricing on the assumption it will win all 50 launches. Reliability will also be a factor, and ULA has made 77 consecutive successful flights as of the Dec. 3 Atlas launch of a National Reconnaissance Office satellite.

For SpaceX, gaining access to government business as it breaks into the commercial market is important. Launch service providers face a near-term challenge as many of the bigger commercial communications-satellite operators near the end of large-scale modernization programs. In addition, internationally, many governments are reducing satellite purchases to cut spending and balance budgets. Smaller regional players will continue to purchase new satellites, but demand for commercial launch services will begin to decline in 2014 and continue dropping for several years. Satellite orders are forecast to begin rising again after bottoming out later this decade.

In anticipation of a recovery and to maintain its lead in the commercial market against SpaceX and other lower-cost competitors, the European Space Agency is funding an upgrade to the Ariane 5 operated by Arianspace, and beginning studies to define the architecture of its successor, the Ariane 6. With a 2,000-kg (4,400-lb.) increase in payload capability to GTO, the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution is expected to be operational by mid-2018 at a development cost of almost €1.5 billion ($2.1 billion). Planned to be in service by 2021, Ariane 6 will use a common upper stage based on the Vinci restartable cryogenic engine, but with solid-rocket first and second stages. With a smaller payload than Ariane 5, Ariane 6 will also be cheaper and simpler to fly.

China, the main low-cost competitor, continues to develop the Long March 5 rocket, which will more than double its mass-to-orbit capability when launches begin in 2014.

India plans a second attempt to fly its uprated Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk II, with indigenous cryogenic upper stage, early in 2014. The first launch in 2010 failed when the new stage malfunctioned.

Two converted Soviet-era ballistic missiles returned to the small-satellite launch arena late in 2013, when the Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr and Russian-German Rockot made successful launches, providing competition for Arianespace's Vega. The smallsat sector is seeing increasing commercial demand, particularly for optical and radar imagery.

In the human spaceflight field, the driver for launches in the near term will be the International Space Station. Both SpaceX, with the Dragon cargo capsule, and Orbital Sciences, with its Antares booster and Cygnus capsule, are under contract to NASA for routine commercial resupply missions to the ISS, supplementing cargo flights by Russian Progress, European ATV and Japanese HTV automated spacecraft.

The next step is commercial crew transport, planned to begin in 2017, and 2014 will see key tests by the three contenders: Boeing's CST-100 capsule and Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Dream Chaser reusable spaceplane, both of which are intended to be launched on the Atlas V; and SpaceX's manned Dragon capsule. SpaceX plans critical launch-pad and inflight abort tests of its integrated propulsion system in mid-2014. Boeing is planning for a critical design review in spring 2014 and unmanned test flight in 2016. Piloted atmospheric drop tests of the Dream Chaser are planned for 2014, leading to an unpiloted orbital flight in 2016.

NASA, meanwhile, is continuing development of the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift booster and Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle for human deep-space exploration, but their schedules are highly dependent on adequate funding. For now, the initial 70-ton-capacity SLS is on track for an unmanned lunar fly-by flight in December 2017, carrying an instrumented Orion, and a crewed test flight to lunar orbit in 2021. For the Lockheed Martin-built Orion, the major upcoming event is an engineering test flight planned for September 2014—a Delta IV launch of a protoype capsule to validate the heat shield structural modeling.

In the “new-space” arena, Virgin Galactic expects to begin commercial suborbital passenger flights at the end of 2014 with the air-launched SpaceShipTwo. XCOR Aerospace has yet to begin flight tests of its two-seat Lynx Mk. 1, which will take off and land like a conventional aircraft, and now aims to offer suborbital flights by early 2015. Blue Origin is continuing development of its New Shepard suborbital system, and plans unmanned orbital tests of a human capsule in 2018, on an Atlas V.

Partly funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Stratolaunch Systems plans to begin satellite launches in 2018 with its Orbital Sciences-developed Air-Launched Vehicle, designed to place payloads up to 6,000 kg in low Earth orbit (LEO) after release from the carrier aircraft. Also in 2018, start-up Swiss Space Systems plans to begin operating an air-launched system, based on a Dassault-designed reusable unmanned spaceplane launched from the back of an Airbus A300 to carry up to 550 lb. to LEO.

—With Amy Butler and Frank Morring in Washington, Amy Svitak in Paris and Bradley Perrett in Beijing.

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