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


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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.

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15 comments

  • wodun

    If SpaceX reaches a point in development that they could sell a dozen or so F9’s to the Air Force and the Air Force could operate them on their own, it could be a great way to rapidly deploy assets in the event that our space infrastructure is attacked and then deploy more as needed. We have a lot of unused silos that could possibly be modified.

  • Anthony Domanico

    Elon Musk himself has said launching replacement satellites as a counter to anti satellite weapons is an exercise in futility. He went on to say the best way is for our space assets to have defensive capabilities. It takes years and hundreds of millions of dollars to put a bird into GEO. In other words, we could never hope to replace them as rapidly as an adversary could render them useless. Either way, it’s a scary thought.

  • Anthony Domanico

    According to the article, the Air Force didn’t disclose when the contract was awarded. They just announced that SpaceX had won a contract. SpaceX may have been required to keep this mission from being listed on any public manifest.

    “The Air Force declined to say when the contract was awarded or provide other details.”

  • Dick Eagleson

    I had speculated some time ago on another forum that SpaceX might go after X-37B launches as part of its push into the DoD/USAF/NRO arena. Given that there’s only about one such mission per year, this is not going to be a huge part of SpaceX’s business in future, but it will likely turn out to be steady work.

    X-37B is made by Boeing, is – at least thus far – a LEO vehicle and is launched inside a 5-meter payload fairing. Perfect for Falcon 9. I suspect Boeing built the physical launch vehicle interface to match that of its GEO comsats or perhaps of some military satellite program for which it is prime contractor. In the former case, SpaceX could readily handle such a mission as it has launched Boeing-built GEO comsats before. If the latter is the case, SpaceX is already well along the learning curve anent DoD payloads because of its GPS mission wins and its probable bidding on other DoD missions not yet formally contracted.

    This may not quite qualify as eating ULA’s lunch, but it certainly qualifies as eating its appetizer plate.

    I’m a little surprised the X-37B mission is scheduled for August, but only a little. Spaceflight Now’s launch schedule shows only seven SpaceX missions during the last five months of this year. That is well below SpaceX’s recent mission cadence. I think at least a half-dozen more will be scheduled as the year progresses. This X-37B mission would seem to be the first such.

    The prospects look good for SpaceX to finish 2017 having launched more missions than any single country on Earth except for the United States.

  • Anthony Domanico

    As their launch cadence increases, so does my anxiety per launch. I’m hoping they have a solid year with zero mishaps. I don’t know about you Dick, but I felt the pressure for the launch they did for the NRO…

    As space enthusiasts we have a lot on the line with SpaceX and all the other private space companies. It feels like they are all under a microscope with certain people ready to pounce and be super critical. I can see a future in which we will have a lot of diverse companies prospering in space and government is no longer the only big actor. It feels so close.

  • LocalFluff

    Dick Eagleson
    “only seven SpaceX missions during the last five months of this year”

    This launch calendar adds another nine Falcon 9 launches in 2017 without any more specific date:
    http://spaceflight101.com/calendar/

    One might add 6 boosters for the two planned Falcon Heavy launches this year.

  • wodun

    Elon Musk himself has said launching replacement satellites as a counter to anti satellite weapons is an exercise in futility.

    There are more than just satellites to launch and satellites other than those in GEO. Space isn’t currently weaponized per se but when it is, then we get to counter. Taking down our space assets could possibly part of a first strike but after that, an enemy’s ability to take out more will be severely limited.

    Elon Musk is a smart guy but he is also wrong about a lot of things. Thankfully, on some issues he changes as he gets better information.

  • wayne

    Dick–
    if I haven’t mentioned it recently–highly enjoy your writing. (informative & well written)

    Referencing Musk tangentially– a brand-new (6-7-17), longer-form article, delving into the finances-behind-the-genius.
    (and, unlike the Wall Street Journal, freely accessible. WSJ does cover Musk rather extensively, including SpaceX, but ‘behind the paywall.’ I get the print edition, but that doesn’t help anyone else…)

    [don’t necessarily endorse any conclusion’s reached therein, but this is highly informative]

    https://www.fastcompany.com/40422076/the-real-story-behind-elon-musks-2-6-billion-acquisition-of-solarcity-and-what-it-means-for-teslas-future-not-to-mention-the-planets

    wodun– totally agree, Musk is a smart guy & has demonstrated flexibility. (He’s not a genius, in all things.) I do tend to think however, he’s locked into some of his lefty-cause’s, a bit too much for me. (recently saw him explain why he felt it was important for him to serve as an economic-advisor, and then he quit in protest barely a month later.)

    That aside–His success with SpaceX is amazing.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Anthony,

    SpaceX’s increased launch cadence doesn’t bother me. The new strongback design at LC-39A seems to make two-week pad turnarounds a low-pressure proposition. The rebuilt SLC-40 is to get a matching strongback of the new design too, so the cadence should continue, uninterrupted, as LC-39A is readied for the Falcon Heavy test. My personal prediction, made in Jan. on another forum, was for SpaceX to launch 26 missions in calendar 2017, six of those from Vandenberg. That still looks like a good bet to me. It might even be a tad conservative.

    Agree we “space cadets” have a lot riding on New Space in general and SpaceX in particular. I think we’re in good hands, though. The track record of New Space and SpaceX detractors is not very good.

    LocalFluff,

    I think the Spaceflight101 launch schedule probably took all those undated 2017 launches straight off the SpaceX web site launch manifest. SpaceX doesn’t put dates on its launch manifest, only a year. And that year is supposedly when the launch vehicles and payloads are expected to be delivered to the launch site, not necessarily when they are going to launch.

    That being said, I suspect a fair number of those missions actually are going to launch in the latter half of 2017. Spaceflight Now is a bit more conservative about its launch date verification process so that probably explains the difference. As the “missing” SpaceX launches get assigned actual launch dates – or at least months – they will appear, probably one at a time, on the Spaceflight Now launch schedule. The Spaceflight Now schedule tends to be pretty accurate for the upcoming 90 days but gets a bit iffier for anything beyond that.

    wayne,

    Thank you for the kind words.

    Anent Musk, thanks for the link. I’ll read that and maybe post another comment here afterward. Have to go for now.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Okay, finished reading the FastCompany article wayne linked. Looks as though the Tesla-Solar City merger came along just in time to save Solar City. Elon’s cousins, the Rive brothers, had made a good start, but were pretty obviously thrashing by the time Elon stepped in with the merger offer. Lyndon Rive’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, this was definitely a rescue operation on Tesla’s part.

    But it was also good business. I agree with Elon that the combined firm will be stronger than either was separately. In a sense, this is just Tesla getting as vertically integrated as SpaceX has been from the get-go. As to the schedule for the Buffalo solar shingle/panel gigafactory, it seems to be going forward on Musk Standard Time – a year or two late. But much of the delay, in this case, seems due to problems that predated the takeover by Tesla. Absent Tesla and Musk, the whole project would probably have veered into the ditch.

    As things stand, Tesla should be well into the six figures in annual car production by 2019 and its Solar division should be cranking out and installing product at a good clip.

  • wayne

    Dick–
    Interesting take on the Musk empire.

    Personally, I’m highly leery of the electric-car & solar-panel, subsidy Programs, upon which Tesla & Solar City participate.
    I’m not against electric-cars or solar-panels per se, but I do believe that market is completely distorted by a spider-web of mandates, seen and unseen, and we have no way of knowing what the price of these cars/panels, actually is.

  • Anthony Domanico

    Dick,

    Do you have any concerns about SpaceX having to substantially increasing the head count to ramp up production and what that might mean for quality control? That’s where my concern lies, but I hope time will prove those concerns to be unfounded.

    wodun,

    Regarding the anti satellite weapons, keep in mind that an adversary doesn’t have to launch a kinetic weapon to neutralize one of our satellites. All that is needed is a laser to blind it.

    As far as Musk is concerned, I agree with you. He’s not infallible. Some people act like he can walk on water. I also think he gets too much credit for what SpaceX has done. I think his biggest contribution to the launch industry has been to force his engineers to look at old problems in a new way. With that said, I am a fan of Musk and SpaceX.

  • Edward

    Anthony Domanico wrote: “I also think he gets too much credit for what SpaceX has done. I think his biggest contribution to the launch industry has been to force his engineers to look at old problems in a new way.

    Doesn’t that one contribution deserve much credit?

    Many impossible engineering feats have been accomplished by the lower level engineers, but they would never have tried the impossible without the lead engineer’s guidance. I have designed and built things and parts of things that other people got the credit for, because they led the effort and deserved the credit.

    I have seen efforts that have been poorly led end in failure or reorganization. I have worked on projects that were going astray but were then guided back on track by people who were talented at leadership.

    Success in one endeavor does not mean that the leader will always be successful. One person that I worked for on a successfully recovered project was later fired from a high level position at NASA, because NASA did not like his leadership style.

    We saw that Musk can lead a team to do the impossible, reenter a first stage, but we will have to see whether he is capable of leading a team that gets people to Mars.

  • wodun

    Regarding the anti satellite weapons, keep in mind that an adversary doesn’t have to launch a kinetic weapon to neutralize one of our satellites. All that is needed is a laser to blind it.

    Sure but not all space based assets are vulnerable to this. Once assets in space become part of the battlefield, all bets are off in terms of what we deploy. I hope we have some sneaky things ready to go but if not, we could get any number of things on line fairly quick. The downside is that would take time. I know we are already working on things but I hope we have some stuff ready to go.

    Also, not just to deploy in space but closer to home to replicate the services that satellites provide, both commercially and militarily.

  • TG Murray

    Ok I will preface this with the statement that I am huge Musk fan. I think it’s great that SpaceX got the contract. SpaceX made me excited about space again. The strides in space travel that SpaceX has made this last decade is inspiring. Musk is an inspiration to me, and I know that some people think that he is just in it for the money but I disagree. I think he is in for the challenge. He wants to prove that he can do anything and I truly believe that he can. Just readhis profile here to get just a glimpse at all his accomplishments at SpaceX.

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