Since the successful launch by the SpaceX Falcon 9 of the SES-8 communications satellite, accolades for the commercial space launch company have poured in from the media. The UK Guardian pronounced that SpaceX “is the future” in a December 8, 2013 story. Rand Simberg, a space blogger writing in Pajamas Media, suggested that the “dinosaurs” of the space launch industry had just been hit by an asteroid.
Even though SpaceX has been touted as a commercial space launch company, most of its major business has been in servicing government contracts, operating the Dragon cargo ship to and from the International Space Station. It has also been the recipient of generous government subsidies to build and operate a piloted version of the Dragon that will take crews to and from the ISS later this decade.
However, with the launch of a communications satellite to geosynchronous orbit, SpaceX has entered the realm of true commercial space competition. The reason that the other space launch companies had better watch out, as Simberg suggests, is that SpaceX was able to launch the SES-8 successfully at a fraction of the price that any other company would charge.
If SpaceX is able to do this consistently, the economics of space launch will have changed. Whether it is the Europeans with their Arianes, the United Space Alliance with their Delta 4s and Atlas Vs, or even the Chinese and the Russians, the other space launch companies will have been undercut. They will have to either adapt or die.
In passing, Simberg is entire incorrect about SpaceX being a threat to the NASA heavy lift Space Launch Vehicle. The SLS is in a much larger class than the Falcon 9 or even the planned Falcon Heavy, being able to launch far heavier payloads, and is designed to send large payloads, like the Orion piloted space craft, beyond Low Earth orbit. The Falcon launch vehicles would not be able to service a campaign to explore the moon or elsewhere in the solar system without many multiple launches that would likely overstretch its capability.
Of course SpaceX, if it choose, could develop a Falcon in the same class as SLS. If it succeeded in doing that, with a similar price and good reliability, then watch out.