SpaceX at 15
by Jeff Foust
|SpaceX is a company that has had far-reaching impacts on civil, commercial, and national security space, but also one that has left some confused and even a little aggravated.|
A SpaceX Falcon 9 is scheduled to launch in the early morning hours March 14 from the Kennedy Space Center, the second Falcon 9 launch from the pad previously used by NASA for Apollo and shuttle missions (see “New life for an old pad”, The Space Review, February 20, 2017). The vehicle is carrying the EchoStar 23 communications satellite on the rare Falcon 9 launch that does not attempt a first stage landing, thus maximizing the vehicle’s payload performance.
If the launch takes place on schedule, it will occur, by some accounts, on the 15th anniversary of the formation of the company. An article on the SpaceX website published five years ago noted that March 14, 2012, was the company’s 10th anniversary. (The article is no longer available, but is available on the Internet Archive.)
“Ten years ago today, SpaceX was founded with the goal of helping make the human race a multi-planetary species,” that March 14, 2012, article stated. “We remain firmly committed to this goal and will do everything within our power to help make this happen.”
There’s some question about exactly when SpaceX was founded. In Ashlee Vance’s 2015 biography of company founder Elon Musk (see “Review: Elon Musk”, The Space Review, May 18, 2015), he states that the company was founded in June 2002, two months after Musk “fully abandoned the publicity-stunt idea” of sending a greenhouse to Mars “and committed to building a commercial space venture.”
Whether SpaceX’s 15th anniversary is tomorrow or in three months, it’s still useful to examine the effect the company has had on the space industry and beyond. It is a company that has had far-reaching impacts on civil, commercial, and national security space, but also one that has left some confused and even a little aggravated.
What is clear that the launch industry is far different today than it was in 2002. At that time Boeing and Lockheed Martin, with their Delta and Atlas vehicles (including new versions about to enter service), handled the bulk of US government missions. They had a smaller role in the commercial market, in part because the demand for commercial launches forecast in the 1990s failed to materialize as satellite constellations went bankrupt or failed to materialize. The commercial market was predominantly served by Arianespace, International Launch Services (which at the time marketed the Atlas and Proton), and Sea Launch.
Today, SpaceX is a major player in the commercial launch market, with the upcoming EchoStar launch just one example of its presence. ILS, which now sells only the Proton, has a smaller role in the market, in part because of price competition and also because of a series of Proton mishaps in recent years: it’s planning only three commercial launches this year. Sea Launch went in and out of bankruptcy protection, but last performed a launch in May 2014. Last year, the company was sold to S7 Group, a Russian company that operates an airline, with plans to resume launches in perhaps the next couple of years.
Arianespace remains a market leader in the commercial market, but has also had to respond to SpaceX’s presence with the Ariane 6 rocket, under development for a debut around the end of the decade. Without SpaceX, the design of the Ariane 6, with an emphasis on reduced costs, might have been very different—if it even took place at all, given the sterling track record of the Ariane 5.
|SpaceX and NASA have something of a symbiotic relationship that goes beyond the traditional government-company contractor model.|
The shakeup in the government launch market, though, is far more significant. Much of that has little to do with SpaceX itself: the 2005 decision by Boeing and Lockheed Martin to merge their launch vehicle businesses into a joint venture called United Launch Alliance was triggered by a lack of commercial business that could sustain both independently, as well as the government’s desire to maintain two vehicle lines for assured access to space. At that time, SpaceX had yet to launch its first Falcon 1 small launch vehicle.
SpaceX, though, elbowed its way into the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, including a lawsuit filed in 2014 arguing it was not allowed to complete for launches even while going through the certification process. Ultimately, SpaceX got its certification from the Air Force, which agreed to compete a number of EELV-class missions, including a GPS satellite launch that SpaceX won last year.
ULA, no longer guaranteed government business, has reinvented itself as well. The company is reorganizing (and slimming: a round of layoffs expected later this year follow an earlier round last year) and working to be more competitive. It’s developing a new launch vehicle, the Vulcan, with partial reusability and plans for an advanced upper stage that could also serve as a space tug. ULA is, increasingly, talking about its own long-term space ambitions: its “Cislunar 1000” vision, which the company discussed at an invitation-only workshop last month, has the goal of 1,000 people living and working in space in 30 years.
But it’s civil space—NASA—where SpaceX has had the biggest influence, and which has also been the biggest factor influencing its growth. SpaceX and NASA have something of a symbiotic relationship that goes beyond the traditional government-company contractor model. NASA has invested heavily in SpaceX, funding the company’s commercial cargo and now commercial crew development efforts to the tune of several billion dollars. NASA, rather than taking a stake in SpaceX, has come to rely on the company for keeping the station supplied and, soon, transporting astronauts. SpaceX is also gradually stepping into the role of a provider of spacecraft launches for the agency.
SpaceX is not the only company to benefit from such public-private partnerships, but none have been as beneficial, and significant, for both the company and the agency. Orbital ATK’s commercial cargo agreement resulted in a new launch vehicle and cargo spacecraft, like SpaceX’s. However, the Antares rocket has so far failed to win additional business beyond its cargo work, and potential future applications of Cygnus, like supporting a cislunar outpost NASA has proposed developing, remain speculative. Boeing has benefitted from NASA’s commercial crew program, but its impact on the aerospace giant is relatively small.
SpaceX has widely acknowledged this, rarely hesitating in public comments to thank NASA for its support, and even offer more. Musk, for example, in his February 27 announcement that SpaceX would fly two people around the Moon on a commercial mission, suggested that NASA would have “first priority” if it wanted to fly its astronauts instead, effectively booting the paying customers off the flight. “So if NASA decides to have the first mission of this nature be a NASA mission, then of course NASA would take priority,” he told reporters (see “Lunar cause and effect”, The Space Review, March 6, 2017).
The feeling isn’t always mutual. Shortly after Musk announced his lunar mission plans, NASA issued a brief statement about them, which fell short of an explicit endorsement. “We will work closely with SpaceX to ensure it safely meets the contractual obligations to return the launch of astronauts to U.S. soil and continue to successfully deliver supplies to the International Space Station,” it said. Many in the space industry interpreted that statement to be, in essence, NASA telling SpaceX, “Don’t get distracted.”
|“But when I look at it from my standpoint, I don’t see it advancing human presence into the solar system. I just see it as kind of a one-off mission,” Gerstenmaier said of SpaceX’s proposed lunar mission.|
Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration an operations, spoke briefly with reporters last week at the American Astronautical Society’s Goddard Memorial Symposium outside Washington. One asked him whether NASA might be interested in taking SpaceX up on its offer of flying NASA astronauts on the company’s circumlunar mission, in lieu of flying a crew on the first SLS/Orion mission, as NASA is currently studying.
Gerstenmaier sounded skeptical that SpaceX’s plan could fit into NASA’s own long-term human spaceflight plans. “What I don’t know with Elon’s mission is, how does that fit into the broader context? Can that be used in the same way to advance human presence into the solar system? What does Elon want to do with this?”
Gerstenmaier said that he hadn’t gotten a briefing yet from SpaceX with more details about the mission, but did receive advance notice of the announcement (declining to say by how much, though.) “Without knowing what Elon really wants to go do, I can’t really say yes or no,” he concluded. “But when I look at it from my standpoint, I don’t see it advancing human presence into the solar system. I just see it as kind of a one-off mission.”
That is, in many respects, a remarkable thing to say, given Musk’s and SpaceX’s focus on making humanity “multiplanetary” by settling Mars, a vision Musk reiterated in his call announcing the lunar mission. That mission might well support SpaceX’s own Mars ambitions—he suggested it could be a deep-space shakedown cruise of sorts for Dragon prior to Mars missions—but it’s easy to see why this surprise announcement could leave people befuddled.
This is, perhaps, a bigger issue for SpaceX. The company makes grand statements about sending humans to Mars on giant spaceships, as it did last September, or trips around the Moon for tourists, while customers wonder when their satellites will get launched. Schedule slips are nothing new to the space industry, but many within it often take the company’s schedule pronouncements with a grain or two—or a whole shaker—of salt.
SpaceX’s aggressive schedules are hardly new: shortly after the company was founded in 2002, it was planning an inaugural launch of its Falcon 1 in late 2003. In fact, it didn’t fly until early 2006, and not successfully until September 2008.
There are, of course, good reasons for those delays, including, more recently, the losses of two Falcon 9 vehicles in the span of just over 14 months in 2015 and 2016. But customers don't want to be seen as just a means to a bigger end, like cities on Mars, particularly when they have other options.
And, increasingly, they do. At the Satellite 2017 conference in Washington last week, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos disclosed new details about his company’s New Glenn orbital launch vehicle that he announced last September. The rocket, set to begin launches around 2020, will be able to place 13 metric tons in geostationary transfer orbit and 45 metric tons into low Earth orbit, making it roughly comparable to the Falcon Heavy.
He also announced the company’s first customer for the rocket: Eutelsat, one of the world’s largest operators of communications satellites. “A few months ago, we started approaching customers, and Eutelsat was very interested right away,” Bezos said. “We couldn’t hope for a better first partner, because they’re going to be able to help.”
The Eutelsat contract is for a satellite to be named later, for launch in 2021 or 2022. The companies didn’t disclose the price, but it’s reasonable to assume Eutelsat, which has flown as the first customer of other vehicles, got a good deal off any list price. A day later, Bezos tweeted that Blue Origin signed up its second customer, OneWeb, which will buy at least five launches, which could be used to help deploy a next-generation system of as many as 2,000 satellites.
“Our goal, and we won’t stop until we achieve it, is to dramatically lower launch costs,” Bezos said of his company’s ambitions, which he said would enable far greater use of space. “It’s not going to be easy, and it’s going to take time. But when we do achieve that goal, it will grow the entire industry.”
|Fifteen years ago, there were many skeptics that a dot-com billionaire would be able to successfully build and launch even something as modest as the Falcon 1. There was similar skepticism in later years about the Falcon 9, Dragon, and the company’s ability to land a first stage, on land or at sea.|
While Blue Origin was the star of Satellite 2017, one of the major conferences of the traditional commercial space industry, SpaceX had a much smaller presence: banners hanging in the convention center lobby, but no booth in the exhibit hall. SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell appeared on a panel of launch providers, where she assured the industry the company would ramp up its launch rate this year.
“We will definitely catch up,” she said of its backlog of launches, discussing how the company was continuing to invest in increasing its production capacity. Moreover, she said, launching reused, or “previously-flown,” first stages on future missions, starting as soon as late this month with the launch of the SES-10 satellite, will aid that effort by requiring fewer new stages to be built.
It’s worth noting, though, that in the long run the company had backed up its lofty plans with achievements. Fifteen years ago, there were many skeptics that a dot-com billionaire would be able to successfully build and launch even something as modest as the Falcon 1. There was similar skepticism in later years about the Falcon 9, Dragon, and the company’s ability to land a first stage, on land or at sea. Now such landings are almost commonplace, so much so that the upcoming EchoStar 23 launch, without a landing attempt, has become the exception rather than the rule.
That doesn’t mean future ventures are assured of success, only that SpaceX has a track record after 15 years that suggests even its wildest plans, be they missions around the Moon or a massive transport system for sending people to Mars, cannot be dismissed out of hand. It may just take a while longer than they project.