Tag Archives: Falcon 9

SpaceX delays Bulgarian satellite launch to replace valve

Capitalism in space: In order to replace a valve in the payload fairing of its Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX has decided to delay its Florida launch of a Bulgarian television satellite until Friday.

Meanwhile, they have another launch scheduled for Sunday out of Vandenberg. If both fly successfully this will make the weekend very busy for SpaceX.


Air Force budget reveals cost differences between ULA and SpaceX

Eric Berger at Ars Technica has found that the most recent Air Force budget provides a good estimate of the price ULA charges the military for its launches.

According to the Air Force estimate, the “unit cost” of a single rocket launch in fiscal year 2020 is $422 million, and $424 million for a year later.

This is a complex number to unpack. But based upon discussions with various space policy experts, this is the maximum amount the Air Force believes it will need to pay, per launch, if United Launch Alliance is selected for all of its launch needs in 2020. ULA launches about a half-dozen payloads for the Air Force in a given year, on variants of its rockets. Therefore, the 2020 unit cost likely includes a mix of mostly Atlas V rockets (sold on the commercial market for about $100 million) and perhaps one Delta rocket launch (up to $350 million on the commercial market for a Heavy variant).

In other words, the $422 million estimate per launch is the most they will pay. Atlas 5 launches will certainly be less, about $100 to $150 million, while the Falcon 9 will likely be under $100 million. What they are doing is budgeting high so they guarantee they have the money they need to pay for the most expensive launches, usually on the Delta Heavy.

From my perspective, they are budgeting far too high, and if I was in Congress I would insist that this number be reduced significantly, especially considering this Air Force statement on page 109 of the budget document [pdf]:

The Air Force, National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) agreed to a coordinated strategy for certification of New Entrants to launch payloads in support of NSS and other USG requirements which has so far resulted in the certification of one New Entrant. The Air Force continues to actively work with potential New Entrants to reliably launch NSS requirements. The Government may award early integration contracts to ensure each potential offeror’s launch system is compatible with the intended payload. Beginning in Fiscal Year 2018, the Air Force will compete all launch service procurements for each mission where more than one certified provider can service the required reference orbit. [emphasis mine]

The “New Entrant” is of course SpaceX. They are also saying that they are going to encourage competitive bidding now on all future launch contracts.


Jury rejects lawsuit by disgruntled former SpaceX employee

A jury has ruled in favor of SpaceX and against a former employee who claimed he was fired because he complained about management and testing policies at the company.

Though it is hard to say what really happened, it does appear that, once given all the evidence, the jury agreed with SpaceX that the former employee was fired for good cause.


Air Force awards SpaceX contract to launch next X-37B mission

Capitalism in space: The Air Force has awarded SpaceX the contract to launch the next X-37B mission, presently scheduled to launch in August.

The contract amount was not announced, but it certainly is going to be less than ULA charged for its own launches of the X-37B. Also, this launch is scheduled only two months hence, which means SpaceX has to somehow wedge it into its already crowded schedule.


NASA considering using used first stages for Dragon cargo launches

Capitalism in space: With SpaceX’s successful launch on June 3 of a used Dragon cargo capsule to ISS, NASA is now considering using used Falcon 9 first stages for later cargo missions.

“That question has been posed,” Ven Feng, manager of the ISS Transportation Integration Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said during a post-launch press conference Saturday. “We are looking at it,” he added. “We’re evaluating every aspect of it very carefully, and there is no schedule yet when we might go down that path.”

NASA officials made the same kind of cautious statements several years ago when SpaceX proposed flying a used Dragon capsule. In other words, they are going to do it, it just takes the bureaucracy time to mull the idea over and finally accept it.


SpaceX launches commercial satellite

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully launched a commercial communications satellite, only two weeks after its previous launch.

They hope to launch again in two weeks, and then two weeks after that, and then two weeks after that, again. In fact, they presently have four launches listed for June. If they succeed, they will be well on the way to clearing their launch backlog.


SpaceX to launch Bulgarian satellite in June with used first stage

Capitalism in space: SpaceX will fly its second used first stage in June when it launches a Bulgarian communications satellite.

In a statement, BulgariaSat said its BulgariaSat-1 spacecraft is scheduled to launch in mid-June on a Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The first stage of that Falcon 9 will be the same one that launched 10 Iridium Next satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in January. Maxim Zayakov, chief executive of BulgariaSat, said the use of a reused first stage lowers the launch price and “makes it possible for smaller countries and companies to launch their own satellites.”

The company did not disclose the price it is paying for the launch, including what discount it is receiving for using a “flight-proven” first stage.

Previously SpaceX had said it would charge about $40 million for a launch using a previously flown first stage, so I would suspect the discount is somewhere around that.


SpaceX successfully launches first surveillance satellite

Capitalism in space: SpaceX this morning successfully launched its first National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) surveillance satellite.

They also successfully landed the first stage at the cape. Video below the fold. These first stage landings are becoming entirely routine, which in the long run will probably be their biggest single achievement. Expect this stage to fly again.

Last night John Bachelor emailed me a link to a podcast I did with him from April 2011, six years ago. He has reposted it, entitling it “SpaceX underbids Big Space & the beginning of commercial space supremacy.” During that appearance I noted the signing of SpaceX’s first contract with NRO. That contract led to today’s launch.

About the same time I posted a story describing NASA’s first small development contracts for commercial manned capsules, awarded to Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, SpaceX and Boeing. In that post, I predicted the following about this commercial effort:

I bet they all get their rockets/capsules launched and in operation, supplying cargos and crews to low Earth orbit, before NASA even test fires its heavy-lift rocket [SLS].

Looks like that’s a prediction that will turn out true.
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First Falcon Heavy side first stage ready for initial tests

Capitalism in space: SpaceX prepares for first Falcon Heavy launch this fall, with the first side stage ready for its first hot fire static tests while the company prepares the launchpads.

They need to finish repairing the launchpad damaged in the September 1 explosion so that the Falcon 9 can once again launch from there. Once this is done, they have an estimated sixty days of additional work to do with the Falcon Heavy pad. It is expected the switch back to the old pad will take place by August. meaning that the first Falcon Heavy launch will likely happen no earlier than October.

Posted while in the air over Nova Scotia on the way to Israel.


Air Force willing to use re-used Falcon 9 first stages

Capitalism in space: The head of the Air Force’s space division said yesterday that they would be willing to launch satellites using Falcon 9 used first stages.

“I would be comfortable if we were to fly on a reused booster,” General John “Jay” Raymond told reporters at the U.S. Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. “They’ve proven they can do it. … It’s going to get us to lower cost.”


Russia responds to SpaceX reused booster success

A bunch of stories from Russia today appear to express that country’s political response to SpaceX’s success yesterday in launching a commercial satellite using a previously flown first stage.

It appears that these stories are quoting a variety of Russian officials who apparently did not get their stories straight. Also, it appears that much of what they are saying here is pure bluster. For example, in the third link the official makes the silly claim that the ability of their rocket engines to be started and then restarted repeatedly proves they are dedicated to re-usability. And the first two links don’t provide much back-up for the claims that they can complete with SpaceX, especially since SpaceX presently charges a third less than they do per launch, and that is using new boosters. With reused boosters SpaceX’s launch fees will be less than half what Russia has been charging for a Proton launch ($90 million vs $40 million).

Similarly, the claim that they will complete 30 launches this years is absurd. They won’t be able to launch Proton until May, at the soonest, because of the need to remove defective parts from all of their in-stock engines. Soyuz launches are similarly delayed while they check its engines also. To complete 30 launches in only seven months seems very unrealistic to me, especially since the best they have done in a full year this century is 34 launches, with an average slightly less than 30 per year.

Nonetheless, this spate of stories and statements by Russian officials shows that they are feeling the heat of competition, and also feel a need to respond. The first story has this significant statement:

Russia’s State Space Corporation Roscosmos is responding to the challenges with available possibilities, he added. “It has announced a considerable reduction in the cost of Proton rocket launches. The commercial price of this rocket’s launch is considerably higher than its prime cost and we have the potential for the price cut. But customers are giving up our services because the number of payloads [satellites] remains unchanged and does not grow. Correspondingly, a new player on the market snatches away a part of orders,” the expert noted.

Because of Russia’s low labor costs they have always had a large profit margin on their Proton launches. The $90 million they charged was set just below what Arianespace charged for its launches. It appears they are now planning to lower their prices further to match SpaceX.

Posted from the south rim of the Grand Canyon.


First Falcon Heavy demo launch to include two used boosters

The competition heats up: SpaceX plans to use two already flown first stage boosters when it does its first demo flight of Falcon Heavy later this year.

Musk said the rocket cores for Falcon Heavy’s first flight are two to three months away from completion. He emphasized that the first launch will carry a lot of risk, and as such, SpaceX doesn’t plan to carry a valuable payload or payloads with it. “We will probably fly something really silly on Falcon Heavy because it is quite a high risk mission,” he said.

SpaceX will seek to recover all the boosters from the first Falcon Heavy flight, assuming all goes according to plan. Musk said the two side boosters would land back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, followed by the center core returning to a drone ship in the Atlantic.

They will also try to recover the upper stage, but are not hopeful this will succeed. The article also notes that they hope to fly an additional four used boosters in 2017. SES is eager to use them on its three scheduled flights this year.

The company has also said that the booster that was successfully reused this week will not fly again, but will instead be put on display in Florida.

Posted from the south rim of the Grand Canyon.


SpaceX recovers fairing of upper stage of Falcon 9

The competition heats up: Even as SpaceX made history yesterday in its successful use and recovery of a used first stage, it also recovered for the first time the fairing that protected the satellite.

For the first time, SpaceX also recovered the payload fairing, the conical shaped structure on top of the rocket that surrounds and protects the spacecraft during launch. The fairing separates from the spacecraft in two sections during the launch sequence — in this case, 3 minutes and 49 seconds after launch — and usually falls into the ocean and breaks into pieces. SpaceX outfitted these two fairing sections with parachutes so they could be recovered, which apparently will become standard practice.

Musk also indicated that they are now going to begin an effort to recover the second stage. “What’s the worst that could happen? It blows up? It would anyway.”


Reused first stage static fire dress rehearsal today

Update: The countdown and static fire test has been completed, apparently successfully. The launch however is now set for Thursday.

SpaceX today plans to do the first static fire dress rehearsal countdown of a Falcon 9 rocket using an already used first stage.

The static fire process for SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rocket is one of the last critical components in the pre-launch flow ahead of liftoff. For SES-10, the Falcon 9 and mated second stage will be moved to the launch pad on top of the TEL (Transporter Erector Launcher) and will be taken to vertical at historic launch complex 39A. Once the Falcon 9 is vertical, technicians and engineers will complete all of the connections between the TEL/launch mount and LC-39A and proceed into countdown operations on Monday morning.

For this particular static fire, SpaceX has up to an eight-hour window.

If all goes well, they plan to do the actual launch on Wednesday.

The article by the way also provides a nice detailed history of the first stage.


SpaceX signs lease for Florida warehouse to refurbish 1st stages

The competition heats up: SpaceX has signed a five year lease for a Florida warehouse near Port Canaveral store and refurbish its recovered Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy first stages.

This lease just firms up the reality that SpaceX is shifting from expendable first stages to a fleet of reusable first stage. Any rocket company that does not do the same is going to be left in the dust.


SpaceX successfully launches commercial satellite

The competition heats up: SpaceX tonight successfully launched Echostar 23.

This launch is almost four weeks after their last launch, which sent a Dragon capsule to ISS. Their goal this year has been to do one launch every two weeks, a goal they have not yet reached. The next launch, which will also place a commercial communications satellite into orbit, is tentatively set for March 27, and will also be the first launch that reuses a first stage. If they make that happen it will be first time they have hit the two week launch rate this year. They will then try to follow with another Dragon resupply mission, this time reusing a Dragon capsule for the first time.


SpaceX wins another Air Force launch contract

The competition heats up: SpaceX has been awarded a $96.5 million contract to launch an Air Force GPS satellite.

This price is about $14 million more than the last SpaceX Air Force launch contract. That’s probably because SpaceX was trying to undercut ULA’s price by as little as possible so that they could increase their profit. Until there are others in the business who can compete with SpaceX’s prices, the company is sitting pretty in any competitive bidding situation. Their costs are less, so they can always beat everyone else’s prices, while maximizing their profits.


SpaceX loses 89 smallsats due to delays

Spaceflight, a company that specializing in scheduling secondary payload launches for smallsat companies, this week pulled 89 satellites from SpaceX because of that company’s launch delays.

For more than a year, Seattle-based Spaceflight has been waiting to launch an array of 89 miniaturized satellites aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and deploy them in orbit from its innovative SHERPA carrier.

Now the launch logistics company isn’t waiting any longer. All 89 satellites have been rebooked due to schedule concerns, Spaceflight’s president, Curt Blake, reported today in a blog posting. “We found each of our customers an alternative launch that was within the same time frame,” Blake wrote. “It took a huge effort, but within two weeks, the team hustled to have all customers who wanted to be rebooked confirmed on other launches!”

The SHERPA carrier had been slated as a secondary payload on the launch of Taiwan’s Formosat-5 satellite. It was put on SpaceX’s manifest since 2015, but the launch has been repeatedly delayed, in part due to the Falcon 9 rocket mishaps that occurred in mid-2015 and last September.

What is good about this is that the competition in the launch industry is now robust enough that these smallsats can find alternatives, and do it quickly. As good as SpaceX might be at some things, if the company doesn’s start fulfilling its promised launch schedule it will start to bleed customers more and more.

Unfortunately, the article doesn’t say which launch companies have now gotten this business. If I had to guess, I would bet that India got the contracts, based on their recent PSLV launch that put 103 smallsats into orbit. In arranging that launch ISRO had been very mobile, adding new smallsats to it quickly and very late in the launch schedule.


Dragon safely berths at ISS one day late

As expected, SpaceX’s Dragon freighter safely berthed at ISS today, one day late.

French astronaut Thomas Pesquet steered a 58-foot robotic arm to snare the unmanned Dragon at 5:44 a.m. EST, as the two spacecraft flew 250 miles above northwestern Australia. “Looks like we got a great capture,” radioed Shane Kimbrough, commander of the six-person Expedition 50 crew, to flight controllers in Houston.

The freighter will remain docked at ISS for a month while they off load it and load it with experiments being sent home.


Dragon aborts berthing with ISS

Because the spacecraft had apparently rendezvoused with ISS about 15 minutes early today, the computers on Dragon aborted the berthing, backing off to try again tomorrow.

No explanation as to why the spacecraft arrived so much earlier than expected, though it is reported to be in excellent shape.

Posted above the Gulf of Mexico, which appears very calm today.


SpaceX delays first Dragon Mars mission to 2020

SpaceX has decided to delay its first Dragon flight to Mars from 2018 to 2020 so as to focus on more immediate priorities.

Instead of aiming for the 2018 deadline, SpaceX will now try to launch a robotic mission to Mars — known as its Red Dragon mission — two years later, in 2020, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said during a press conference Friday.

This delay will allow the company to refocus on other more, earthly ambitions in the near term before setting its sights on Mars down the road. “We were focused on 2018, but we felt like we needed to put more resources and focus more heavily on our crew program and our Falcon Heavy program, so we’re looking more in the 2020 time frame for that,” Shotwell said.

They need to fly the Falcon Heavy several times first, and the delays caused by last year’s September 1 launchpad explosion, has pushed the first Falcon Heavy launch back from late in 2016 to the summer of 2017.


SpaceX launches Dragon and lands first stage

The competition heats up: SpaceX today successfully launched from Florida a Dragon capsule into orbit while also landing the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket.

This launch initiates use of the company’s new launchpad at Cape Canaveral, as well as their effort over the coming months to hold launches every two weeks or so.


Killing both commercial space and American astronauts

This all reeks of politics: A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released yesterday says that NASA it should not permit Boeing and SpaceX to fly humans on their capsules and rockets until they fix certain issues and test both repeatedly on unmanned flights before the first manned flights to ISS.

This GAO report was mandated by Congress, and it requires NASA to certify that both Boeing and SpaceX have met NASA’s requirements before allowing those first manned flights. While the technical issues outlined in the report — to which NASA concurs — might be of concern, my overall impression in reading the report, combined with yesterday’s announcement by NASA that they are seriously considering flying humans on SLS’s first test flight, is that this process is actually designed to put obstacles in front of Boeing and SpaceX so as to slow their progress and allow SLS to launch first with humans aboard.

For example, the report lists three main problems with the commercial manned effort. First there is the Russian engine on the Atlas 5. From the report itself [pdf]:
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