SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launches from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on June 3, 2017. (Bill Ingalls / NASA)
has a busy weekend ahead. And its outcome could signal whether the company is closing in on a crucial milestone.
Starting Friday morning, the Hawthorne space company is planning two satellite launches from opposite coasts with only about 48 hours in between. If the launches come off as planned, they will mark SpaceX’s fastest turnaround so far and could be an early indicator of whether the company can increase launch rates.
“Proving that they can launch at a faster pace and launch regularly is going to be the most important for customers,” said Bill Ostrove, an aerospace and defense analyst at Forecast International.
“They have a really large launch manifest, so if somebody goes to you, and you say you can’t get a launch slot for a few years, they could go to one of your competitors,” he said.
SpaceX is set to launch a Bulgarian commercial communications satellite on a Falcon 9 rocket with a reused first-stage booster at 11:10 a.m. Pacific time Friday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. That marks the second time the company has launched with a previously used booster.
On Sunday afternoon, attention will turn to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where SpaceX intends to launch 10 satellites for communications firm Iridium on a new Falcon 9 rocket.
If both missions are successful, SpaceX will have launched nine times so far this year. In 2016, SpaceX completed eight launches before a September launch pad explosion grounded the company for the last few months of the year.
Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of build and flight reliability, said in a news conference this month that this year’s quicker flight rate had been helped by “turning things into routine.”
A rapid pace of launches, together with a reusable rocket system, are integral to SpaceX’s eventual Mars colonization plans.
Those plans anticipate reusable spaceships that will be launched by massive rocket boosters into a so-called parking orbit around Earth. The boosters will return to Earth and pick up propellant tankers to top off the ships’ reserves before they make the long journey to the Red Planet.
That’s still years away. For now, more frequent launches mean that the company can work through its backlog of customers and take on more missions. Last year, SpaceX said it had about 70 missions on its launch manifest worth a total of more than $10 billion.
After SpaceX launched a satellite on a recycled first-stage booster for the first time this year, Chief Executive Elon Musk said the company’s goal would be having landed boosters ready for re-flight within 24 hours. Eventually, SpaceX will be able to launch from two pads in Florida, one at Vandenberg and one in south Texas.
“He’s looking at this business from the long term as how can he drive costs down, how can he become more efficient and still make money without taking a lot of additional risk,” said Ramon Lugo, director of the University of Central Florida’s Florida Space Institute and former director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio.
But increasing the pace of rocket launches is more complicated than, say, speeding turnaround times for airliners.
Just look at NASA’s space shuttle orbiters. Each was designed to fly at least 100 missions. The aim was to lower the cost per flight and make spaceflight routine.
But the shuttle ended up launching, at most, nine times in one year because of the unexpectedly time-consuming process of hardware inspection after each vehicle returned to Earth, said Lugo, who is a former deputy program manager of the Launch Services Program at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The shuttle program was retired after a total of 135 flights.
“That was a human being putting eyes on the hardware, taking measurements … and saying, ‘OK, everything is still within design specifications,’ ” he said. “The old-school way is you do a lot of data review and you do testing, and then you fly.”
SpaceX will review the data from Friday’s launch before Sunday’s mission, as it has with previous launches, said Phil Larson, assistant dean at the University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Engineering. Larson formerly worked at SpaceX and was a senior advisor for space and innovation in the Obama administration.
But today’s launch systems are starting to incorporate the types of data monitoring systems similar to those already used in commercial airplanes and cars to tell ground technicians where problems might be located, Lugo said.
In that way, increasing the launch rates can be a little more risky since there’s less human inspection. Lugo said SpaceX is probably using computer software and technology to examine the flight data in the same way that humans used to on the shuttle.
SpaceX declined to comment for this story.
“He’s willing to take a little more risk,” Lugo said of Musk. “He also recognizes that … he can’t just take a huge amount of risk because if it doesn’t pay off for him, that impacts his reputation.”
Analysts said a faster launch pace could also take a toll on workers. On the ground, people are needed to manage launch operations and other technical elements of the process. To manage that, SpaceX has two distinct teams at each site for the upcoming launches, Ostrove said.
SpaceX’s launch pads have also been designed or upgraded to accommodate rapid launches. The goal is that launch will eventually be a “turnkey operation,” Larson said.
Friday’s launch was delayed almost a week so the company could replace a fairing valve. Musk called the part “dual redundant,” but said it was “not worth taking a chance.”
In the future, Ostrove said, SpaceX will need to speed up its inspection and evaluation process for landed first-stage boosters so there are few to no technical issues to modify and boosters can re-fly sooner.
“People think of this as a major milestone weekend, but really, this is part of the beginning of what they’re trying to do,” Larson said. “They’re still in the early stages of the goals they want to accomplish.”