1. SpaceX demonstrated that their new crew cabin design will work well for astronauts in both nominal and off-nominal scenarios. It also provided our engineers with the opportunity to gain valuable feedback from both NASA astronauts and industry experts.
Announced in March 2011, the agreement with Luxembourg-based SES to loft the SES-8 satellite to geostationary orbit atop the twice-flown Falcon 9 rocket was widely viewed as a vote of confidence in the Hawthorne, Calif.-based startup, despite its running years late in demonstrating the ability to boost cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) for its primary government backer, NASA.
But during the past two years, as SpaceX secured contracts in major Asian markets, announced plans to introduce a heavy-lift variant of the Falcon and started construction of a new launch pad at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., the company has fallen further behind schedule.
“They’re running up against the reality of rocket engineering—getting these systems to work is hard,” says John Logsdon, a space policy expert and professor emeritus at George Washington University. “This is the teething pain of an emerging firm that doesn’t match the rhetoric, doesn’t match their optimism, but matches the reality of the situation.”
Earlier this year SpaceX pushed its first cargo demonstrator to the ISS under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to the end of April from February. It also slipped the schedule on a midsummer debut of an upgrade to the Falcon 9 main-stage engine, which SpaceX is obligated to fly before it can loft SES-8 next year.
Now slated to lift off no earlier than October from the new Vandenberg site, the overhaul of Falcon 9’s Merlin 1C engine aims to add enough power to boost payloads to geostationary transfer orbit. In addition to lofting SES-8, the more robust rocket positions SpaceX to deliver on commercial launch agreements with Hong Kong-based AsiaSat and Thaicom of Thailand beginning as early as next year.
“Commercial launches now represent over 60 percent of our upcoming missions,” SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said in February after announcing the agreement to launch AsiaSat-6 and AsiaSat-8 atop the Falcon 9 in early 2014.
With plans to debut the new Merlin 1D before year-end, SpaceX has been test-firing the motor “four or five times a week” at the company’s development facility in McGregor, Texas, says SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Grantham. The new Falcon 9 also will feature an extended propellant tank and wider payload fairing.
At Vandenberg, Grantham says SpaceX has completed demolition of the old launch site, including removal of a tower, and recently started construction of a new hangar. The upcoming launch is expected to deliver a small, scientific spacecraft built by MDA Corp. of Canada to a near-polar orbit. Delivery of hardware to the launch site, including the new rocket and satellite, dubbed Cassiope, is expected later this year.
Although SpaceX has secured commercial launch agreements with a handful of satellite operators, including a $500 million contract to loft Iridium’s 72 next-generation satellites to low Earth orbit in 2015-17, SES-8 marks the company’s first commercial mission to geostationary orbit. But with four flights on the SpaceX manifest in 2012 alone—Cassiope, the COTS demo and two commercial resupply services (CRS) missions scheduled under a separate, fixed-price contract with NASA—SES may need to consider other options.
“As an alternative, we always have a backup in place for all SES launches,” says Yves Feltes, a spokesman for SES, which has existing multi-launch agreements with Arianespace and ILS, in addition to a framework understanding with Sea Launch. “The same is true for SES-8.”
“This announcement marks SpaceX’s first launch contract in Mexico. It is also the second launch contract in Asia that we have signed in the last month,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and Chief Technology Officer.
“We are very pleased to have SpaceX, the world’s fastest growing space launch company, as our launch partner for Satmex 7. Satmex is positioned for a new era of growth with the anticipated launches of Satmex 8 in 2012 and Satmex 7 in late 2014 or early 2015. The addition of Satmex 7 (C and Ku band satellite) will expand our fleet to three satellites covering the Americas. Satmex 7 will be a cornerstone of the Satmex fleet designed to provide direct-to-home (DTH) and data services with increased power levels and improved elevation angles from any location within the coverage. These benefits will provide better performance to deliver media content directly to homes as well as broadband services,” said Patricio Northland, CEO of Satmex.
“Over the past decade, we have seen launch prices increase dramatically, making access to space out of reach for many programs. As one of the fastest growing satellite operators in the world, ABS requires access to space that combines affordability and lift capacity for our future satellite programs,” said Tom Choi, CEO of ABS. “Together with Satmex, our co-launch partner, we embark upon an innovative prospect of dual launching four medium-powered satellites on two launches on the Falcon 9. We are extremely happy to be working with Satmex and SpaceX to dramatically realign the cost structure of space access in order to bring the affordable capacity demanded by our customers.”
SpaceX will launch the two companies’ geosynchronous telecommunications satellites on two separate launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The launches will take place in late 2014 or early 2015 and the fourth quarter of 2015.