SpaceX updates its prices

The competition heats up: SpaceX this weekend updated the prices and listed capabilities for buying a Falcon 9 launch, while also adding the price and capabilities of its not-yet flown Falcon Heavy. Here’s the link to the SpaceX page.

The damage shakes out to $62 million for a Falcon 9 rocket launch with a payload of 4,020 kilograms (8,860 pounds) and $90 million for a ride on the much-anticipated Falcon Heavy rocket, set to debut in late 2016, which can ferry 13,600 kilograms (29,980 pounds) to Mars. In addition to adding an interplanetary destination to its wares, SpaceX has also upped the payload capacity of the Falcon 9 to low Earth orbit from 29,000 pounds to over 50,000 pounds.

The Falcon Heavy is expected to put slightly more than 50 tons into low Earth orbit, half of what a Saturn 5 could do, and about two thirds what the first version of SLS will be able to do. Yet, their price to buy a launch is actually less than what every other rocket company is charging for rockets approximately comparable to the Falcon 9 and about 500 times less than the cost to build that SLS rocket (what an SLS actually costs to launch is anybody’s guess, but it certainly ain’t anywhere near $100 million). And the upgrades on the Falcon 9 have also made it better than those other rockets because it can now put 25 tons into low Earth orbit, only slightly less than the space shuttle.

That they have added the Falcon Heavy is also more evidence that they are confident that its first test flight will be this year.

Dragon to go to Mars in 2018

The competition heats up: Though no details have yet been released, SpaceX has announced through its twitter feed that they plan to send a Dragon to Mars by 2018.

This is not really a surprise, as rumors have been circulating literally for years of Musk’s Martian goals. Nor am I doubtful they can do it. What is important about this announcement is that it suggests that they are now confident that the delays for the first Falcon Heavy launch are mostly over, and that it will happen in the fall as presently planned. With this rocket they will have the launch capability to do a test flight to Mars.

SpaceX estimates 30% price cut from reusable 1st stage

The competition heats up: At a satellite conference on Wednesday SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell estimated that they will be able to cut the price of launch to about $40 million, a 30% cut from their already low prices, once they can reliably begin reusing the first stages of the Falcon 9 rocket.

Given that SpaceX has no intention, for now, of recovering the second stage, she said a launch with a previously used first stage could be priced 30 percent less than the current Falcon 9 rockets.

SES of Luxembourg, SpaceX’s biggest backer among the large commercial satellite fleet operators, has said it wants to be the first customer to fly with a reused stage. But SES Chief Executive Karim Michel Sabbagh said here March 8 that SES wanted a 50 percent price cut, to around $30 million, in return for pioneering the reusable version.

Shotwell said it was too early to set precise prices for a reused Falcon 9, but that if the fuel on the first stage costs $1 million or less, and a reused first stage could be prepared for reflight for $3 million or so, a price reduction of 30 percent – to around $40 million – should be possible.

Shotwell also said they hope to launch 18 times this year, with the first Falcon Heavy launch now set for November. This is another two month delay from their previous announcement, which had said they were hoping to launch in September.

With only two launches so far this year, I must say I am skeptical they can achieve 16 more launches in the year’s remaining 9 months, a rate of about one almost every two weeks. They have never come close to this schedule, and though I believe they can eventually do so, I don’t think they can do it so quickly.

SpaceX loses a launch payload

In the heat of competition: Because of delays, a satellite company has shifted its launch vehicle from SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy to Arianespace’s Ariane 5

The company, ViaSat, still has a contract with SpaceX to use Falcon Heavy to launch later satellites, but they decided they could no longer wait and needed to get the satellite in orbit by 2017, something that SpaceX could no longer guarantee. They had to pay more to fly on Ariane 5, but it appears they were able to negotiate a price break with Arianespace to close the deal.

Experts: NASA’s SLS Mars proposals bunk

The death of SLS begins: At House hearings this week, congressmen listened to several space experts who lambasted NASA’s asteroid and Mars mission proposals.

Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute and an expert on lunar science, was especially harsh.

“America’s civil space program is in disarray, with many aspirations and hopes but few concrete, realizable plans for future missions or strategic direction,” he said, adding that NASA lacks what it needs to pull off the mission (and throwing some shade at the agency’s strong Twitter game). “We pretend that we are on a ‘#JourneytoMars’ but in fact, possess neither the technology nor the economic resources necessary to undertake a human Mars mission now or within the foreseeable future. What is needed is a logically arranged set of short-term, realizable space goals–a series of objectives and destinations that are not only interesting in and of themselves, but whose attainment build space faring capability in the long term.”

The testimony claimed that it could cost anywhere from $500 billion to $1 trillion for NASA to get humans to Mars, numbers that are reasonable based on using NASA’s very costly and overpriced SLS/Orion rocket and capsule. The congressmen were of course interested in this, not because they want to get to Mars, but because they see gobs of pork for their districts in these numbers.

However, I expect that when SpaceX begins successfully launching its Falcon Heavy rocket in the next two years while simultaneously putting humans in space with its Dragon capsule, and does both for a tenth the cost of SLS/Orion, those same congressmen will dump SLS/Orion very quickly. Though they want the pork, they also know they don’t have $500 billion to $1 trillion to spend on space. The private sector gives them an option that is both affordable and of strong self-interest. The more realistically priced and designed hardware of private companies will give them a more credible opportunity to fund pork in their districts.

New launch contracts for SpaceX and ILS

The competition heats up: Launch competitors SpaceX and ILS announced new contracts today for launching commercial satellites into orbit.

SpaceX announced two new contracts, one from the Spanish communications company Hispasat, who signed them up to use a Falcon 9, and a second from the Saudia Arabian communications company Arabsat for a Falcon Heavy launch.

ILS meanwhile got its own contract from Hispasat to use a Proton to put another Hispasat communcations satellite into orbit.

The two Hispasat contracts show the advantages of competition for satellite makers. They now have more than one company to choose from, and are spreading their business around to give them options while encouraging these companies to compete against each other by lowering prices.

Engineers propose using SpaceX rocket and capsule to bring samples back from Mars

Engineering by powerpoint! Several NASA engineers have proposed using SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket and an upgrade of its Dragon capsule to bring samples back from Mars.

The researchers have drawn up a plan that uses a modified version of SpaceX’s uncrewed Dragon cargo capsule, which has already flown six resupply missions to the International Space Station for NASA. The Red Dragon variant would include a robotic arm, extra fuel tanks and a central tube that houses a rocket-powered Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) and an Earth Return Vehicle (ERV).

Red Dragon would launch toward Mars atop SpaceX’s huge Falcon Heavy rocket, which is scheduled to fly for the first time next year. After a long deep-space journey, the capsule would touch down near the 2020 Mars rover (whose landing site has not yet been chosen). “Red Dragon can go anywhere the rover can go, as far as landing elevation and terrain,” Gonzales said. “We’re confident we could land in front of the rover and have it drive to us.”

Red Dragon’s robotic arm would then grab a sample from the rover’s onboard cache (assuming the 2020 rover does indeed carry its samples, rather than stash them someplace) and transfer it to a secure containment vessel aboard the ERV, which sits atop the MAV. If something goes wrong during this exchange, Red Dragon can simply scoop up some material from the ground using its arm. The MAV would then blast off from the center of the capsule, like a missile from a silo, sending the ERV on its way back to Earth. The ERV would settle into orbit around our planet; its sample capsule would then be transferred to, and brought down to Earth by, a separate spacecraft — perhaps another Dragon capsule.

I like this concept because it uses available or soon-to-be available resources that are also relatively cheap to adapt for the mission. I also warn everyone that this is, as I note above, engineering by powerpoint. It is a concept, hardly a real proposal. The track record of seeing these kinds of proposals by NASA actually happen is quite poor.

First Falcon Heavy launch now scheduled for April/May 2016

The competition heats up: SpaceX is now aiming for a spring launch of the first Falcon Heavy.

That first launch will be a demonstration mission without a paying customer. That launch will be followed in September by the Space Test Program 2 mission for the Air Force, carrying 37 satellites. Rosen said the company was also planning Falcon Heavy launches of satellites for Inmarsat and ViaSat before the end of 2016, but did not give estimated dates for those missions.

Though no one should bet a lot of money on this launch schedule, if they get even half this accomplished they will be doing quite well. This, combined with the possibility that they will safely land the first stage of the Falcon 9 by then as well, will put SpaceX in an undeniably dominate position in the launch market.

Work accelerates towards the first test flight of Falcon Heavy

The competition heats up: Design and construction of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is picking up in advance of the rocket’s first test flight, now tentatively scheduled sometime this summer.

It will not surprise me if that summer launch does not happen on time. Nonetheless, I expect that before 2015 is over we will see a Falcon Heavy on the launchpad being prepped for launch.

SpaceX animation of Falcon Heavy launch

The competition heats up: SpaceX has released a short animation showing the launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket, with all three of its Falcon 9 first stage boosters returning to the launchpad and landing vertically.

I have posted this animation below the fold. When NASA makes these kinds of animations, which the agency has been doing for more than forty years now, I pay little heed. They don’t signal any achievement, merely the dreams of the engineers there. In the case of SpaceX, however, I pay close attention, because the company’s track record is that they are likely to make this animation quite real in a surprisingly short period of time.

» Read more

Falcon Heavy launch still set for 2015

The competition heats up: According to SpaceX officials, the first test flight of their Falcon Heavy rocket is still on schedule to occur sometime in the third quarter of 2015.

We should all take this schedule with a grain of salt. Back in 2013 SpaceX had scheduled the first Falcon Heavy launch for the second half of 2014. Then in April 2014 they said it would occur early in 2015. Now they say the third quarter of 2015. I would not be surprised if there are further delays beyond this.

Nonetheless, I have no doubt that they will launch this rocket. SpaceX has consistently delivered on its promises, which is one reason it has grabbed so much of the launch market in such a short time.

Falcon Heavy launchpad work begun

The competition heats up: SpaceX has begun the construction work necessary to convert the launchpad it will use at the Kennedy Space Center for its first test flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket, now scheduled for summer 2015.

Most of the current work appears to be taking place on the perimeter area of the pad, with the construction of a hanger building – known as the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) – that will house the Falcon Heavy rocket and associated hardware and payloads during processing. During rollout, the Falcon Heavy will be transported atop the Transporter Erector (TE), which will ride on rails, up the famous 39A ramp that once saw Space Shuttle and Apollo stacks arrive via the Crawler Transporters.

The July launch date is considered preliminary and a target date only and is of course subject to change.

The competition in space continues to heat up

Two news stories today indicate that things are going to get increasingly interesting in the exploration of space in the coming years.

First there is this story from Joe Abbott of the Waco Tribune, who routinely reports on SpaceX news because their McGregor test facility is nearby. In it Abbott reports that SpaceX has scheduled its next Dragon supply mission to ISS for no early than September 20.

This news item however is not Abbott’s most interesting news. He also notes several twitter reports coming out a commercial satellite conference in Paris that indicate that SpaceX has closed 9 deals, including several more for its as yet unflown Falcon Heavy.

But even that is not the most interesting news. Abbott also reports that a replacement for the destroyed Falcon 9R test vehicle will be shipped to McGregor for testing in less than two months. Considering how long it takes governments to build and fly test vehicles, getting this replacement in shape for flight mere months after the failure a few weeks ago is quite impressive.

But even that was not Abbott’s most interesting SpaceX news item. » Read more

Russia to match SpaceX launch prices

The competition heats up: The head of Russia’s United Rocket and Space Corporation (URSC), which now controls that country’s entire space industry, said today that they intend to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 much cheaper launch prices.

They intend to do it with both the Proton rocket as well as their new family of Angara rockets. The heavy version of Angara will allow them to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, and in fact might even put more payload into orbit for less.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket gets a customer

The competition heats up: The commercial satellite company Inmarsat has booked SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket for one firm launch and two additional options.

The firm contract is for the launch, scheduled perhaps aggressively for late 2016, of a satellite being built for both Inmarsat and Arabsat of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Arabsat will use the satellite for conventional telecommunications services for its wholly owned Hellas-Sat fleet operator of Greece. The Inmarsat payload uses S-band to provide mobile communications in Europe as part of a satellite-terrestrial broadband network, which is a new business line for Inmarsat.

Inmarsat’s launch contract is for a rocket that has not even yet been tested once, which tells us something about the faith they have in SpaceX. While I would be shocked if they didn’t have an option to pull out should there be significant delays or problems in launching Falcon Heavy, that they are willing to commit to it now is a convincing endorsement of SpaceX.

NASA has officially handed control of launchpad 39A to SpaceX, where the company intends to launch its Falcon Heavy.

NASA has officially handed control of launchpad 39A to SpaceX, where the company intends to launch its Falcon Heavy.

The agreement turns over control of Launch Complex 39A to the commercial space transportation firm, which plans to use the launch pad for the the initial flights of the Falcon Heavy, a mega-rocket featuring 27 first stage engines generating nearly 4 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

Pad 39A was the starting point for many historic Apollo and space shuttle missions, including the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 and the first and last shuttle launches in 1981 and 2011.

“We’ll make great use of this pad, I promise,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, in remarks to the media moments after signing the lease. “We’ve had architects and our launch site engineering [team] working for many months on the sidelines. We will launch the Falcon Heavy from here first — from this pad — early next year.” [emphasis mine]

The highlighted quote reveals a key fact. Until recently SpaceX had been claiming that it will do its first demo launch of Falcon Heavy in 2014. This quote confirms that this schedule is not happening.

SpaceX has renegotiated its lease with the city of McGregor, Texas, in order to begin testing the Falcon Heavy rocket.

The competition heats up: SpaceX has renegotiated its lease with the city of McGregor, Texas, in order to begin testing the Falcon Heavy rocket.

What I found stunning about this article is this quote:

The Falcon Heavy will have commercial, civil and national security applications, Ra said, adding that customers will pay $81 million to $135 million per launch, depending on the weight of the payload and the rocket’s destination. That is about twice the price of a Falcon 9 launch.

These prices for the Falcon Heavy are actually comparable or cheaper than that charged by most other rocket companies for geosynchronous launches. If SpaceX succeeds in doing this — launching Falcon Heavy at these prices — they will certainly open deep space to private enterprise. And even if their prices end up being twice this, those prices will still be anywhere from one fourth to less than a tenth of what it will cost NASA to launch its SLS rocket.

Which should make us all wonder: Why is anyone in Congress still voting to fund SLS?

SpaceX is about to finalize a deal with the Air Force to launch satellites on both its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

SpaceX is about to finalize a deal with the Air Force to launch satellites on both its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

For the Dscovr mission, scheduled for late 2014, a Falcon 9 will be used to launch an Earth and space weather satellite to the Sun-Earth Lagrange point L1, a location approximately 930,000 mi. from Earth. The Dscovr program, which will provide warning of space weather events, is a joint effort between the Air Force, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The STP-2 mission, which is targeted for launch on a Falcon Heavy in mid-2015, includes two space vehicles: the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate-2 (Cosmic-2), designed to monitor climate behaviors; and the Demonstration and Science Experiments (DSX), which will conduct radiation research. [emphasis mine]

The big story here is that even before it has flown the Falcon Heavy once SpaceX already has a customer for it.

From a past SpaceX critic: SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy could wipe its launch competition.

From a past SpaceX critic: SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy could wipe out its launch competition.

This announcement [of SpaceX’s deal with Intelsat] is an indication that SpaceX is now threatening the dominance of Arianespace and ILS in the commercial launch arena. If a Falcon 9 Heavy can carry two or more large GEO communications satellites for half the launch price of an Ariane 5 or Proton M booking, then this could spell the end of their commercial operations as going concerns. It is not only on the commercial front that SpaceX may dominate. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Heavy launch service promises to be less than half the cost of using equivalent Atlas and Delta rockets. So even the cosy launch provider-governmental relationships that previously benefited the likes of Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Pratt and Whitney/Rocketdyne could now be threatened.

As much of a fan of SpaceX as I am, and as much as I agree with the above statement, we must remember that Falcon Heavy is not yet built. Moreover, I suspect that the deal with Intelsat does not yet include any transfer of funds. SpaceX has a long way to go before any of this happens. Nonetheless, the company’s continued success very obviously is beginning to make its competitors nervous.

SpaceX has gotten its first contract, with Intelsat, for its not-yet-built Falcon Heavy rocket.

The competition heats up: SpaceX has gotten its first contract, with Intelsat, for its not-yet-built Falcon Heavy rocket.

The Falcon Heavy when completed will be the most powerful rocket since the Saturn 5. If SpaceX can get it funded through commercial contracts, it will end forever the need for government subsidies in the aerospace industry. Government as a customer will still exist, of course, but it will no longer be in charge.

Elon Musk defends his vision and success

Elon Musk defends his vision and success. Key quote:

For the first time in more than three decades, America last year began taking back international market-share in commercial satellite launch. This remarkable turn-around was sparked by a small investment NASA made in SpaceX in 2006 as part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. A unique public-private partnership, COTS has proven that under the right conditions, a properly incentivized contractor — even an all-American one — can develop extremely complex systems on rapid timelines and a fixed-price basis, significantly beating historical industry-standard costs.

China has the fastest growing economy in the world. But the American free enterprise system, which allows anyone with a better mouse-trap to compete, is what will ensure that the United States remains the world’s greatest superpower of innovation.

To put it simply, Musk is right, on all counts.

SpaceX Unveils Plan for World’s Most Powerful Private Rocket

SpaceX unveils its plan for the Falcon 9 Heavy, what would be the world’s most powerful private rocket.

The new rocket will be able to carry about 117,000 pounds (53,000 kilograms) of cargo to orbit – about twice the payload-carrying capability of the space shuttle. The Falcon Heavy would launch more than twice as much weight as the Delta 4 heavy, currently the most powerful rocket in operation. Only NASA’s Saturn 5 moon rocket, which last launched in 1973, could carry more cargo to orbit, SpaceX officials said.

Musk said the rocket should lower the launch cost of cargo to about $1,000 per pound, about one-tenth the cost per pound on NASA shuttle launches.

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