For SpaceX, RLV Development Takes a Momentary Backseat to Customer Satisfaction


SpaceX is continuing to feel the effects of last year’s Falcon failure on the NASA/CRS-7 resupply flight to the International Space Station.

Following a return to flight and a successful debut for the Falcon 9 Full Thrust as part of the Orbcomm OG-2 mission on December 21st, 2015, SpaceX launched the Jason-3 ocean monitoring satellite on January 17th, 2016. It marked the last flight of the original series Falcon 9 V1.1, and a positive finale for what had been a spectacularly successful run until everything changed on June 28th, 2015. Of some note, the Jason-3 launch also saw what was technically the first successful landing at sea aboard what SpaceX calls its Automated Spaceport Drone Ship, but a near instantaneous collapse of one carbon fiber landing leg irreversibly changed the narrative.

The next launch will be that of the SES-9 satellite out of Cape Canaveral. The date for that flight is now February 24th, with a backup opportunity reserved for the next day. In what marks a significant change from the original flight plan however, the SpaceX rocket will now be flying a more energetic trajectory which is designed to minimize the effects of delays which were incurred due to the CRS-7 failure.

The net result of that decision, which came at the request of SES, is that the first stage of the Falcon 9 most likely has a date with the Atlantic Ocean like other expendable boosters, or at best case, a very long shot landing attempt on the East Coast Automated Spaceport Drone Ship far out at sea. According to a press release from SES issued last week, the change will allow the spacecraft to reach its orbital slot at 108.2 degrees East in time to keep a 3rd Quarter 2016 Operational Service Date.

The previous flight plan would have seen the spacecraft take a somewhat more leisurely cruise to its slot in geostationary orbit, with its ion thrusters shouldering more of the work, and allowing SpaceX the fuel reserves required for another first stage landing attempt at Cape Canaveral or at least aboard the ASDS closer to shore.

If the company does elect to pursue a landing attempt as some source have indicated it will, the profile will be similar to that which was scheduled to take place during the launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory in February 2015.

Related: DSCOVR Launch Presents SpaceX with New Landing Challenge

The DSCOVR landing attempt was ultimately called off due to high seas in the recovery zone, one of the numerous perils involved in targeting a vanishingly small bit of real estate in an unforgiving ocean.

SpaceX ASDS Steams Towards a Recovery Attempt

SpaceX ASDS Steams Towards a Recovery Attempt

Given that the Atlantic tends to be rather inhospitable in late winter, the odds may not be much better this time around. Still, if conditions allow, and provided SpaceX is willing to risk another messy landing attempt, the SES flight could help pave the way for core stage landing efforts once Falcon Heavy enters into service.

Like everything on the SpaceX manifest however, the Falcon Heavy schedule is also changing as a result of the CRS-7 loss. Another commercial customer, ViaSat had been slated for the third flight of the triple core booster, following an initial test flight without a paying customer expected to take place this fall, and an Air Force test flight which would come after that. Due to the schedule delays however, ViaSat announced in a conference call with investors last week that it is switching the launch of Viasat-2 to the more expensive, but ultra reliable Ariane V, primarily to gain the benefit of a dependable schedule. While the loss of a marquee mission to its arch competitor had to sting, and doubly so since it reinforced the long standing criticism that SpaceX has difficulties meeting its schedules, the news was not all bad. ViaSat also disclosed that it was retaining the Falcon Heavy contract for a 2020 launch, as well as reserving a second FH slot for later date. In some ways, the change may be good news, in that it relieves the pressure to launch two Falcon Heavy flights in comparatively short order, while still meeting a deadline for ViaSat. It may not be surprising if the first flight of Falcon Heavy slips further into the fall, as the company takes the opportunity to condense gaps in the Falcon 9 manifest.

Taken together, the two changes underscore the particular nature of launch vehicle development conducted at the discretion of the commercial market. Both SES and ViaSat are early adopters, with the former earning the distinction of being the first geostationary comsat to fly on the Falcon 9 V1.1 (SES-8) and the first of the same to fly on the Falcon 9 Full Thrust. The Luxembourg based company, which now operates a fleet of 52 satellites has also indicated that it is willing to take a chance on the first Falcon 9 booster to be reused. Still, the demands of a highly competitive market give little room for experimentation when positive results are demanded on a quarterly basis. For the moment at least, that means it is far more important to get the birds in the sky than to make progress on buying down the cost of future launches.



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1 Comment on "For SpaceX, RLV Development Takes a Momentary Backseat to Customer Satisfaction"

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  1. Gary Warburton says:

    What all this demonstrates is that innovation doesn`t happen overnight. If you want to change things you have to be willing to lose something before you get there. Nothing ventured nothing gained. You might have perfect record for successful launches but in the end that`s all you`ll have.

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