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Has SpaceX cleared the pad?

Satellite Technology

Satellite Technology Feature Article

July 07, 2010

Has SpaceX cleared the pad?

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

Upstart SpaceX (News - Alert) logged two significant milestones in June: A first and successful launch of its Falcon 9 heavy-lift rocket and a whopping nearly half billion dollar contract for launch services with Iridium (News - Alert). Is it fair to jump onto the bandwagon and say SpaceX has made it as a serious player in the launch industry?   

In the beginning, SpaceX tended to be, shall we say, a wee bit optimistic when it came to hitting announced launch dates and the baseline Falcon 1 launcher had a rough road to orbit, with its first three launch attempts ending badly before finally reaching orbit on the fourth flight. Since then, it has clocked one more successful flight, the commercial launch of RazakSAT, and has officially booked a group of flights in the next two years with an uprated version, the Falcon 1e.
However, the bulk of SpaceX's current launch manifest is filled with Falcon 9 flights, with a good portion of them for NASA resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS), assuming that the next two demonstration launches of the F9 and Dragon supply capsule take place without any major glitches.  There's an interesting mix of customers in the F9 queue including CONAE, Spacecom, NSPO, Astrium, Bigelow Aerospace, and the aforementioned half-billion whopper contract with Iridium as the company puts up a new satellite constellation.
The good news is that SpaceX has a nicely loaded launch manifest over the next five years. The not-so-good news -- likely being used by SpaceX competitors in PowerPoint presentations as you read this -- is that SpaceX has a limited number of successful flights under its belt, a fact that makes most of the highly conservative satellite industry break out in hives.
At a price of $49.9 million to $56 million a flight for either LEO or GTO, SpaceX customers outside of NASA are willing to take some risk on a new launcher. We can argue all day about what that level of risk is as compared to any other launcher with an established track record until SpaceX has a couple dozen successful flights under its belt, but until that happens you are still in the region of potential "unknown unknowns." There's a good reason why it IS called rocket science, after all.
Most importantly, SpaceX has reset the bar of expectations for the satellite industry. In less than a decade of operation, it has proven (well, re-proven) that with the right talent and vision a company can start with a clean sheet of paper and successfully get into the launch business with a competitive product.  For that success alone, it is a serious player.

Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.

Edited by Alice Straight

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