Cygnus on Falcon 9?


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The heat of competition: Industry rumors now suggest that Orbital Sciences’s first choice for launching its next ISS freighter Cygnus is SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

The articles offers this explanation for why Orbital is favoring its chief competitor:

While flying on a competitor’s launch vehicle might be viewed as awkward, the decision could boil down to one simple determining factor – cost. It has been estimated that a flight on a F9 would set a customer back $62 million. By comparison, United Launch Alliance’s (ULA ) Atlas V 401 launch vehicle, a booster with similar capabilities to the F9, costs an estimated $100 million per mission. Moreover, SpaceX has a proven track record with the Falcon 9.

All true, but I can think of two more reasons SpaceX is the top choice.

For one, getting a launch rocket scheduled is not as simple as writing a check and then scheduling the launch on a date of your convenience. Schedules are tight, and right now rocket availability is even tighter. SpaceX has a very packed backlog of scheduled commercial launches already on its manifest. Most of these customers have been waiting years to get their payloads in orbit. Many signed contracts with SpaceX before its Falcon 9 had even achieved its first big delivery to ISS, thereby showing great faith in the company and helping it establish its bonifides.

Thus, SpaceX has little commercial incentive to allow its chief competitor to cut in the line and hurt its loyal customers.

However, SpaceX’s biggest customer is NASA, which wants Cygnus to fly on schedule, and thus the agency has a lot of leverage with SpaceX. I suspect that Orbital has asked NASA officials to apply pressure to NASA to apply pressure to SpaceX, and those officials have willingly done so

Second, there is SpaceX’s own reasons for agreeing to launch Cygnus. Not only do they get a lot of good publicity, the launch gives them another opportunity to test the return capability of Falcon 9’s first stage. Many of their commercial launches are to geosynchronous orbit, requiring more fuel from the first stage and thus leaving less for the test vertical landinhg in the ocean. In addition, because of the added risk of these tests many of their commercial customers are reluctant to allow them during their launches.

In this case, SpaceX has the leverage over Orbital to insist on a first stage landing test. More important, imagine the public relations coup for SpaceX if their first successful vertical landing takes place during this launch?

To conclude, though everyone is being tight-lipped at this point, I think there is almost no doubt that SpaceX is going to do it, and that the next Cygnus launch will be on a Falcon 9 rocket.

3 comments

  • Competential

    Is this the 100th lunar rover developed, which will never fly? Why waste clever students efforts on what is worthless?

  • Competential

    Sorry, my comment above came under the wrong subject.
    I think it is great that private companies cooperate and specialize on different niches.

  • Edward

    Robert,

    I can think of a third reason for SpaceX to agree, and with great eagerness:

    The success of commercial space is in some doubt, right now. For years, there have been doubters who have criticized the effort and predicted failure. All of the newcomers to commercial space need to prove that their out-of-the-box thinking produces results no worse than the old-style thinking that has kept access to space expensive, dangerous, and difficult.

    The best result for this version of commercial space is for the survival and success of every company in this new niche of the industry, despite the competition that results. Success builds on success, because confidence is created.

    Even before the two accidents, confidence was hard to come by. Even we enthusiasts have been said to have blind faith and irrational exuberance in this new way of thinking.

    Although I honestly don’t think that all of the current companies will survive (just as Kistler, unfortunately, failed), I root for them all, especially Bigelow, as that company is the only one, so far, that provides a potential for the rapid expansion of destinations for manned commercial space companies. If Bigelow survives, I suspect that all four of the current top runners for commercial manned launches can also survive and thrive, and maybe leave room for still more competitors.

    The result of many successful competitive companies will be the reduction of cost in reaching space. With luck, they can also reduce the difficulty and danger involved, too.

    I hope to see the day when space travel is relatively inexpensive and relatively safe as air travel was in the 1950s. There were a large number of airlines competing and figuring out how to safely and inexpensively fly people and cargo. There were many costly lessons to learn, but we were on our way to an unstoppable industry.

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