A lot is riding on SpaceX Falcon 9 flight
Musk’s iconoclastic launch provider tries to gain traction after explosion
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.