On September 12, SpaceX announced an agreement with SES to launch an additional three satellites beyond the SES-8 launch scheduled for next year. Of particular note was the apparent provision that one or more launches, to begin in 2015, could be carried out on a Falcon Heavy. Immediately following its recent COTS 2/3 launch the company announced the first commercial agreement for the Falcon Heavy in conjunction with Intelsat.
In signing the launch order, SES confirmed that following numerous problems with the Russian Proton, marketed by ILS, the company has heightened interest in securing SpaceX as what it sees as the third leg of a three way solution involving the steadily reliable but expensive Ariane V, as well as the somewhat more erratic Proton. SpaceX, which is contractually obligated to flight qualify its significantly upgraded Falcon 9 V1.1 prior to conducting the initial SES-8 launch next year, is hoping to conduct a first flight, out of Vandenberg, Ca. in June 2013. That flight will not be to GTO, but rather to a polar orbit to deliver the Canadian research satellite build by MDA.
In reporting on the new launch, a number of organizations have seemed surprised by the fact that so many customers have signed with the company, despite the fact that it has yet to conduct a GTO launch. While certainly true, the reports generally fail to note that SpaceX did in fact boost its Falcon 9 second stage to a highly elliptical orbit with an apogee of nearly 11,000 km following the first launch of a Dragon capsule on December 8, 2010. While not all the way to a geostationary transfer orbit, the demonstration, which was hampered by the shortened skirt of the Merlin vacuum engine, no doubt convinced prospective customers that when the time comes to go all the way to GTO, the Falcon should fly straight and true.