On Saturday, SpaceX made a triumphant return to flight after an accident last September. The company launched 10 Iridium satellites into orbit 625 km above the Earth’s surface, and as a bonus, SpaceX also demonstrated its increasing mastery of rocket landings by returning the first stage booster to a drone ship off the coast of California. SpaceX has now successfully landed seven rockets back to Earth.
This flight was essential to SpaceX because the Falcon 9 rocket is at the heart of every aspect of SpaceX’s business. The success of the mission means the company can now move forward with its lofty ambitions for the year 2017, which includes a long list of tasks to ensure a bright future for the Hawthorne, California-based rocket company. Here’s a look at the company’s to-do list:
Increase the cadence
SpaceX makes money when it launches rockets and loses money when it doesn’t. A recent report on the company’s finances showed a loss of $250 million in operating income in 2015 after a rocket carrying cargo to the International Space Station exploded. SpaceX almost certainly lost money in 2016 when another rocket exploded on the launch pad. It needs to fly more in 2017, and it needs to fly safely.
Internal documents show that SpaceX hopes to fly as many as 27 missions this year, and founder Elon Musk has set a goal of achieving about 50 launches per year by the end of this decade. For 2017, a more realistic “high-end” target is probably about 20 flights. That would nevertheless be a significant step forward for the company, which has successfully flown the Falcon 9 rocket just 27 times since its maiden flight in 2010. To meet a goal of 20 flights this year, SpaceX would need to fly about every 2.5 times to fly. weeks 2017.
The company’s next launch will likely take place from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and will carry the EchoStar 23 satellite payload from Launch Complex 39A. The deadline for this launch is currently January 26. If the company flies the EchoStar mission in early February, then 20 launches this year doesn’t seem unreasonable.
With seven booster landings of the first stage at sea and on land, SpaceX has now shown that it can bring rockets home. The big question remains whether it has the capacity to refurbish those missiles in a timely and cost-effective manner before they are used again.
The next step towards this goal is flying again with a used booster. During an interview this week with CBS News, the company’s chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, said SpaceX plans to do so for the first time in “about a month” with the launch of the SES-10 communications satellite.
As for full reusability, where a rocket lands, is refurbished and flies again shortly afterward, Shotwell said SpaceX “stays a few years away.” However, the company clearly intends to collect a lot of boosters for the first stage. SpaceX is nearing approval to expand from 1 to 3 Florida landing pads to allow the return of three Falcon Heavy rocket boosters—instantly.
Since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, the United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy reigns as the most powerful rocket in the world, with the capacity to send about 29 tons to low Earth orbit. SpaceX is trying to enter the heavy payload launch market with its Falcon Heavy rocket, which has an estimated capacity of about 54 tons.
Consisting of three Falcon 9 cores, the Falcon Heavy would essentially double the lift capacity of any existing missile. The cost — nominally $90 million, but likely a multiple of that — is a major selling point. For example, a proven Falcon Heavy rocket could force Congress to question why NASA is developing the Space Launch System, with a capacity of 70 tons and operating costs of $2 billion or more per flight.
Although delayed for several years, the Falcon Heavy will finally reach space in 2017. We’ve heard reports of rocket testing at the McGregor facility in Texas and the completion of Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, where the Falcon Heavy will launch. take flight. Several company sources have linked late spring and early summer target launch dates to the first Falcon Heavy launch.
If — and this continues to be a big one if– flying the Falcon Heavy this year, it would make an emphatic statement that SpaceX has not only moved beyond its Falcon 9 mishaps, but has stepped into the future with a heavy launcher. That would be an area where only superpower governments have trod before.
Over the past five years, as it continued to refine its Falcon 9 rocket and build its commercial launch business, SpaceX has derived most of its revenue from NASA. The agency paid SpaceX to deliver cargo to the International Space Station and develop a crewed version of the Dragon spacecraft to transport people there.
NASA has contracted with both SpaceX and Boeing as part of its commercial crew program. Before commencing operational missions to the station, each company is required by NASA to conduct an unmanned “demonstration” mission and a 14-day crewed test flight. The latest “no sooner than” dates for crewed test flights are May 2018 for SpaceX and August 2018 for Boeing. Such launches would allow one or both companies to begin operational flights before the end of 2018, which NASA is counting on.
As part of SpaceX’s timeline to meet this schedule, the company has said it will fly the uncrewed demonstration mission in November 2017. So for its largest and most important customer, SpaceX should continue to make enough progress with its manned Dragon spacecraft to say so to go into space this year.
Mars and satellite internet
Much attention has been paid to SpaceX’s plans to develop global satellite internet and then use the profits from that endeavor as a basis to fund an ambitious plan to begin colonizing Mars within 10 or 15 years. The reality is none of this can happen unless the Falcon 9 rocket has a successful 2017.
A reliable Falcon 9 makes SpaceX profitable and a reusable Falcon 9 drastically reduces the cost of spaceflight. The Falcon 9 also powers the Falcon Heavy rocket, and it will be used to launch the Dragon crew into orbit. In the short term, the company must demonstrate these capabilities after two accidents with the Falcon 9 rocket in two years.
Once this happens, the company’s grand plans can begin to fall into place. A reusable, low-cost Falcon 9 rocket is essential to getting all those global internet satellites into space. And only then, after conquering the launch market in orbit, can we finally start thinking about the plausibility of plans to colonize Mars with bigger rockets and much bigger spacecraft.
Frame image by SpaceX