A lot is rid­ing on SpaceX Fal­con 9 flight

Musk’s icon­o­clas­tic launch provider tries to gain trac­tion af­ter ex­plo­sion

Houston Chronicle - - CITY | STATE - By Mike Tol­son

The smoke had barely cleared from a spec­tac­u­lar launch­pad ex­plo­sion of a SpaceX Fal­con 9 rocket last Septem­ber when head­lines be­gan to ap­pear pro­claim­ing dark days ahead for a com­pany that has al­ways in­spired a le­gion of skep­tics.

One on­line pub­li­ca­tion sug­gested the fu­ture of SpaceX might be “doomed,” and it was not the only one. Forbes, an early SpaceX doubter, would go only so far as to call it “murky,” while Giz­modo chose “clouded in un­cer­tainty.” Through­out the space in­dus­try me­dia, there was a per­va­sive air of con­cern for a com­pany that had watched an­other of its rock­ets ex­plode shortly af­ter launch the sum­mer be­fore.

“Things will never be the same,” as­serted Giz­modo, a pop­u­lar on­line fu­tur­ist tech blog.

And yet a few months later, a SpaceX rocket is back on the launch­pad, prepped and ready to lift 10 small satel­lites into Earth or­bit for Irid­ium, a voice and data com­pany that op­er­ates a con­stel­la­tion of satel­lites. Weather per­mit­ting, a new Fal­con 9 will launch Satur­day from Van­den­berg Air Force Base in Cal­i­for­nia.

As­sum­ing all goes as planned, the SpaceX doubters again will re­treat to the shad­ows. And things will be pretty much the same, with the icon­o­clas­tic launch provider back to mak­ing bold prom­ises and try­ing to re­shape an in­dus­try that has been no­to­ri­ously re­sis­tant to change.

Af­ter all, SpaceX is no longer a new­comer, with 32 com­pleted launches stretch­ing back to a pair of test flights in 2006 and 2007. It has a long man­i­fest of fu­ture launches, and last year it did some­thing no launch provider has by suc­cess­fully re­turn­ing a rocket first stage back to Earth with a soft land­ing, first on land and then re­peat­edly on a drone ship.

But SpaceX be­ing what it is — the pri­vately held and some­what se­cre­tive cre­ation of a bil­lion­aire

whose real in­ter­est is lead­ing the col­o­niza­tion of Mars — the naysay­ers will never be too far away, sens­ing that the com­pany’s rep­u­ta­tion is in­flated by hype and that some­thing will go hor­ri­bly wrong at some point.

Other re­spected in­dus­try an­a­lysts in­sist SpaceX some­times gets a bum rap.

“The length that they’ve come, rel­a­tively on their own, is an aw­ful long way with rel­a­tively few fail­ures,” said Marco Cac­eres, di­rec­tor of Space Stud­ies for the Teal Group, an aerospace con­sul­tant. “They’ll even­tu­ally have a pres­ence in ev­ery seg­ment of the launch mar­ket. They’ll do com­mer­cial and mil­i­tary and carry as­tro­nauts.

“I’m less con­cerned about the fail­ures. They are go­ing to hap­pen. I still am bullish on SpaceX. I’m not one who says Elon Musk is too brash in talk­ing about what he plans to do.”

Musk’s rad­i­cal no­tion

Musk, a bil­lion­aire whose for­tune orig­i­nated in on­line pay­ment fa­cil­i­ta­tor PayPal, founded SpaceX in 2001 with the idea of low­er­ing the cost of get­ting things into space. It was a rad­i­cal no­tion, as the ex­ist­ing launch providers had never made cost a pri­or­ity. There was not a lot of com­pe­ti­tion, so cus­tomers paid what they had to pay. Small guys who wanted to put some­thing in or­bit but had cash lim­i­ta­tions of­ten were out of luck.

Musk claimed that a fully pri­vate, ver­ti­cally in­te­grated op­er­a­tion that did not over­spend on over­head could change things. He in­sisted there was no in­her­ent rea­son launch prices had to be so high.

De­spite an abun­dance of crit­i­cism from a smat­ter­ing of in­dus­try an­a­lysts, pun­dits, and jour­nal­ists, SpaceX plowed ahead and largely proved its case, in­still­ing more true com­pe­ti­tion and show­ing that a com­pany out­side the space es­tab­lish­ment could find a place. It helped that NASA’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, at White House di­rec­tion, wanted to turn over re­sup­ply mis­sions to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion to pri­vate en­ter­prise.

Al­though the num­ber of SpaceX launches has not lived up to pre­dic­tions, SpaceX even­tu­ally be­came prof­itable, ac­cord­ing to a re­port pub­lished this week in the Wall Street Jour­nal, which for the first time had ac­cess to com­pany fi­nan­cial in­for­ma­tion. That changed in 2015 with the launch fail­ure, lead­ing to an an­nual loss re­ported to be about $260 mil­lion. Fi­nan­cial re­sults from 2016 were not avail­able, but the launch­pad fi­asco, which de­stroyed a satel­lite pay­load along with the rocket, is likely to have pro­duced a sim­i­lar re­sult.

Blood­ied again, Musk re­mains un­bowed, vow­ing to get back to busi­ness as usual — and more. Once again SpaceX is promis­ing an in­cred­i­ble launch rate, tar­get­ing 27 this year and as many as 52 by 2019.

Stakes are higher

Satur­day’s launch is cru­cial, of course, though with only the one fail­ure in re­cent years there is no par­tic­u­lar rea­son to pre­dict trou­ble. Suf­fice to say the ice is thin­ner than it was a cou­ple of years ago. An­other fail­ure might put SpaceX in a pre­car­i­ous spot.

“If there is an­other is­sue, if an­other rocket was de­stroyed on the pad or there was a rocket fail­ure, peo­ple will be con­cerned,” said Phil Smith, an an­a­lyst with the Tauri Group. “Oth­er­wise I think SpaceX is in a good po­si­tion and will do well. SpaceX … has dra­mat­i­cally al­tered the com­mer­cial launch scene.”

For all of its hic­cups and un­will­ing­ness to court the in­dus­try me­dia, or some­times even an­swer sim­ple in­quiries, SpaceX re­mains the most in­ter­est­ing player among launch providers. Its lower av­er­age cost of about $60 mil­lion took com­mer­cial launches away from Euro­pean and Rus­sian com­pa­nies and forced the big U.S. legacy com­pany, United Launch Al­liance, into a more com­pet­i­tive pos­ture.

Later this year, SpaceX will be­come a big­ger threat to ULA. The com­pany has been cer­ti­fied to carry na­tional se­cu­rity pay­loads via an up­graded Fal­con 9. It had to wage a le­gal fight to get full ac­cess to mil­i­tary launches, and it also ben­e­fited from good tim­ing as a gov­ern­ment ban on the use of Rus­sian rock­ets start­ing in 2019 will hurt one of ULA’s cost-com­pet­i­tive launch ve­hi­cles.

SpaceX’s new Fal­con Heavy also is slated to de­but this year. That will al­low it to carry much big­ger pay­loads that are be­yond the ca­pa­bil­ity of its lit­tle brother. Also fly­ing will be the first of the re­fur­bished rock­ets that have been pil­ing up with the suc­cess­ful soft-land­ing re­turns.

“I think they have an in­cred­i­bly bright fu­ture in front of them,” said Eric Stallmer, pres­i­dent of the Com­mer­cial Space­flight Fed­er­a­tion. “They have en­tered the launch arena less than a decade ago and have had a tremen­dous im­pact on the in­dus­try, the way we launch, and the cost of launch­ing. They have a tremen­dous com­mit­ment to in­creas­ing ac­cess to space.”

In­dus­try is watch­ing

Now all eyes are on what nor­mally would be a lit­tleno­ticed rocket launch Satur­day morn­ing. Musk’s dream of driv­ing down the cost of space ac­cess sig­nif­i­cantly needs a suc­cess­ful re­boot.

“SpaceX is do­ing well, but you cross your fin­gers ev­ery time a launch hap­pens,” Smith said. “Things hap­pen very quickly with rock­ets, and when they go badly, they go badly very quickly.”

Some­times the same is true of the com­pa­nies that build them.

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