Why Monday’s SpaceX launch is a big deal

F9_vertical_7_2_0Today’s third attempt by SpaceX to launch a communications satellite to geosynchronous orbit is important for not just the upstart space launch company but also to the future of human spaceflight.

SpaceX is the first (and so far the only) private company to send a privately built and operated vehicle to orbit and return it safely to Earth. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon capsule also comprise the only system capable of performing this feat from American soil. The company is working to add crew-carrying capability.

SpaceX’s nearest competitor, Orbital Sciences, can also send unmanned vehicles to orbit, but, in a crucial difference, can’t return them safely to Earth, and the company has no immediate plans to make is so.

That makes SpaceX the lynchpin of America’s manned space program, at least for now, and at least as far as actually getting to and from orbit is concerned.

So far NASA has been able to fund development of commercial crew and cargo carrying capabilities. But now, at the crucial final stage of the commercial crew program, Congress has gotten stingy with funding.

Surprise, surprise. There are billions of dollars in key Congressional districts riding on the Congressionally mandated big budget boondoggle known as the Space Launch System (less affectionately known by some as the Senate Launch System.), or SLS. If a private company demonstrates the same capabilities as the SLS at a fraction of the cost, the emperor will stand revealed in all his nude glory, and it will be even harder to justify spending all those billions of dollars on a rocket that is destined to go nowhere. SpaceX is precisely on track to do that little thing.

Expect to see NASA funding for commercial crew to get ever tighter, to dry up altogether, or to go to some less capable outfit as SpaceX approaches manned launches.

All of which is to say that in order to keep its own manned space program flying, SpaceX needs a hefty revenue stream that’s independent of the US government. Hence its satellite launch business.

Today’s launch, if successful, will mark SpaceX’s debut into the big leagues of satellite launch by sending a major communications satellite into geosynchronous orbit for the second largest satellite operator in the world, SES. SES is taking a chance on SpaceX because SpaceX is charging around $60 million for a service that typically costs more like $260 million. After a successful launch, SpaceX will own the satellite launch industry, and its independent revenue stream will be more or less assured. That in turn will allow it to reach not only Earth orbit, but also push out into deep space to Mars, its ultimate destination.

Watch the launch live at 5:41pm ET today, Monday December 2, at www.spacex.com/webcast, and keep your fingers crossed.

UPDATE @ 11:41am ET on Monday: This just in from Elon Musk via Twitter:

All known rocket anomalies resolved. Will spend another day rechecking to be sure. Launch attempt tmrw eve w Wed as backup.


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  1. says

    Lay off the SLS. Your conspiracy logic does not close the loop: if Congress were shorting commercial crew (they have not shorted the cargo program for which SpaceX is getting paid) to prevent a threat to SLS, they would bump funding for SLS missions. That is, your “destined to go nowhere” criticism is far more damaging than any near-term SpaceX capability, and yet you are convinced Congress is busy against the latter and helpless against the former.

    Nonsense. A better explanation is, in fact, the stated motives of the people involved. Some of the Congressional actors are acting according to their conservative ideals, and trimming government wherever they can find it doesn’t impact their constituents. Some are so bruised and battered by budget battles, they find space spending is not so important as getting something passed.

    A few key Congressional representatives appear to be worried that Commercial Crew will turn out like the EELV program, and draw three more companies onto the government dole, in the same way ULA is, where the government pays full price for launches and then a large extra payment just to keep the business and its suppliers going. The fear is that no market outside NASA will appear, and NASA will have to pay not only for development, and also for launches, but for sustainment of the capability too. If that happens, it would be better to only be paying to prop up one company, and not three. So Congress has been leaning on NASA to downselect, and using reduced funding toward that goal. In fact, you might blame NASA and its unwillingness to cut SpaceDev’s DreamChaser just as much as Congress and SLS. But Dream Chaser is like a helpless baby sloth, who wants to criticize that cuteness?

    For the record, I don’t fully agree with either of these Congressional approaches. But just because I don’t agree with them does not make them disappear and get replaced by straw man ulterior motives. (It turns out that I haven’t been entrusted with that decision by voters, whereas they have.)

    Furthermore, let me point out that your assassinate-the-frontrunner program is destined to defeat whatever program you value, once it gets crowned emperor. Live by the sword, die by the sword, as the saying goes. Convincing Congress to kill SLS isn’t going to open up any money for commercial crew; in fact, it bludgeons the strongest supporters of NASA and space technology in Congress. That money doesn’t get freed up, it gets taken away entirely. That hurts SpaceX too, because last I checked they were sucking billions from the government space money teat, and positioning themselves for more.

    Lastly, SLS represents far more capability than SpaceX is offering. Far more capability than the Falcon Heavy, which is promised but hasn’t flown yet. Far more capability than anything SpaceX has announced. The day may come when SpaceX can demonstrate the same capability at a fraction of the cost, but that day is not today. Or any day in the next five years. In the meantime, SLS represents components that have been proven. Giant industrial capabilities that are not vaporware but have put space shuttles and space stations in orbit, and indeed have done virtually everything the space program has accomplished thus far. Giant industrial capabilities and personnel that have made SpaceX possible, and may continue to provide capabilities SpaceX needs, like high energy upper stages and capabilities with cryogenic fuels and solid rocket motors and efficient staged combustion cycles.

    SpaceX has made a great start. I was cheering on this launch as well, and it was certainly an important milestone. I’m hopeful they will drive a lot of changes. But lay off the talk about shutting down the space industry and handing it entirely, right now, to this company which just had its first successful GEO launch.

      • reader says

        Passionate defense of airships circa 1930 might have read the same. After all, it was a massive industrial capability that had delivered most air passengers at the time.

    • Michael Belfiore says

      Thanks for your input, Matt. I really appreciate it.

      I think we have a difference in opinion about the true purpose of NASA manned space program. I think you are an optimist and take NASA’s stated goals at face value, whereas I am a pessimist here. I believe that, contrary to NASA’s stated goals, its mission is not in fact to put people in space and keep them there (though that’s a nice side benefit if that happens).

      Its real, Congressionally-mandated, mission as I see it is to keep money flowing to key Congressional districts and to keep the big budget contractors in business and people there employed. SpaceX doesn’t fulfill these goals and when it is seen to threaten the main mission there’s gonna be hell to pay.

      SpaceX went from propulsion chief Tom Mueller’s garage through design, test and build of entirely new vehicles, all the way to orbit for less than $1b, or less than the cost of a single Space Shuttle mission, when development costs are factored in. It is already more successful than the big-ticket government program. Yes, I know that SLS is ostensibly designed for deep space and F9/F Heavy and Dragon are for LEO, but Elon Musk’s stated goal for SpaceX is reach Mars, with current systems seen as milestones along the way.

      Of course I do want the other commercial orbital providers such as Dream Chaser to succeed also, but only SpaceX appears to have the drive and commitment as well as the independent means to make it with or without NASA’s help (with the possible exception of Blue Origin, which keeps its cards close to the vest).

      How many years is SLS behind schedule? How many billions of dollars over budget? Why isn’t it flying yet? I believe it’s because flight isn’t the mission, much as, I’m sure, the engineers working on it would like it to be.

      • Dave Huntsman says

        You’re dead on, Michael. And contrary to Matt’s assertions, SLS has definitely led to the significant under-funding of commercial crew, as well as the decimation (not too strong a word) of the Obama-proposed space technology development budget. Yet if it is ever developed, it will be too expensive to actually own and use; and at one flight only every year or two, not frequent enough even for flight team skills maintenance. And add to that – it is simply unneeded. So in an era of declining NASA budgets, we have money being taken away from commercial and technology development to create an unneeded, unaffordable super-rocket. In that sense, SLS, combined with declining budgets, is putting NASA into a death spiral.

        I’ve been in NASA 39 years; nine of those years as a Senior Executive. We are at the incredible state here in the 21st century where most of the improvement in space travel going forward is hanging on the fate of one company, and even on the one man leading it. That’s a terrible (and dumb) situation for our country and planet to be in, but there it is. And SpaceX can’t lead us forward unless they can pay the bills – hence, as you point out, the critical importance of this launch and of them capturing the commercial (and military) launch markets, to enable them to continue moving forward; into human space travel, into reusable space transportation, and then beyond Earth spaceflight.

      • says

        Starting with the last first. SLS is not behind schedule. Nor over budget. Perhaps you are confusing it with the previous program that was cancelled, Constellation?

        “Why isn’t it flying?”

        Why isn’t Falcon Heavy flying? It was announced years ago, before SLS, and is much smaller and simpler. Cue some conspiracy theory. Maybe big rockets are hard and take some time to design, test, and build? Do you think Richard Branson secretly doesn’t want SpaceShip Two to fly, since it has taken longer than anticipated to get it going?

        Regarding SpaceX, I agree they’ve done remarkable things. (However, as another one of your commenters remarked, they’ve done their share of standing on the shoulders of giants. Virtually everything they’ve done has built on technology developed and paid for by ol’ jobs-program-NASA, and they’ve received large amounts of technical help by NASA, as well.) Maybe Musk will reach his goal of landing on Mars; of course I’m hoping he does. Who wouldn’t? But he’s not there yet.

        SpaceX, as I mentioned earlier, does not have a high energy upper stage to be competitive for BEO missions. Falcon Heavy has not launched. They don’t have a rocket capable of doing the missions an Atlas V can undertake, much less SLS. Maybe they will. Again, I hope so, and things look promising. But it seems foolish to cancel the SLS program which is bending metal now, BIG metal, in favor of some hoped-for future development from SpaceX. Many promising things don’t come to pass exactly the way we thought they would. Let it play out, and when SpaceX actually has something competitive, then it would be appropriate to compare.

        Lastly, about NASA and Congress and jobs programs. You are right, I disagree. I think that is a cynical oversimplification. And wrong, concerning SLS. Projects can fail, even with the best of intentions and hard work, and make it look like the participants were just killing time.

        So in some sense, it’s an unanswerable accusation, like overcharging by defense contractors, corruption in public office, taking advantage of the welfare system, or bad behavior by big corporations. It undeniably does happen sometimes. But that does not make it the best explanation for the overall behavior, or for every individual or program.
        Matt recently posted..DARPA Robotics Challenge reality check

    • Coastal Ron says

      I think what Matt is missing is that SpaceX and the SLS represent two opposite ends of the spectrum as far as “NEED” goes.

      SpaceX has focused it’s services on reducing the cost to access space, first with cargo resupply services, and now for geostationary satellites. The market need for geostationary satellites is very clear, but for resupplying the ISS there is debate about whether the ISS is a good investment. Nevertheless, the ISS is being funded through at least 2020, so there is a need to resupply it, and SpaceX is one of the two certified providers.

      The Commercial Crew program is also addressing a known need, which is creating a redundant U.S. crew transportation system to the ISS. The question of whether the ISS will have it’s service life extended past 2020 does bring up the legitimate question of whether NASA needs more than one U.S. crew transport provider, and if NASA had to make a choice I think everyone knows that SpaceX would be the clear leader. However if the ISS does have it’s mission extended, then it makes sense to have a second U.S. provider to provide redundancy, so Congress needs to clarify what the future of the ISS is so that the Commercial Crew program can be properly decided.

      Contrast the above discussion of fulfilling a known service need with the SLS rocket. Here we have the largest rocket in the world being built, and there is no known program, payload or mission that requires it. No known need. Sure people ASSUME that a bigger rocket is needed, but no one knows when that point in time is. Next year? Next decade? Next century?

      One thing is for certain though, no one in the commercial world has indicated they want to use it, and so far the DoD & NRO have not said they want to use it, so that leaves NASA as the only customer – and NASA has no budget to build and operate SLS-sized payloads launched once a year for 10-20 years into the future – NASA budget would most likely have to double or triple to use the SLS at a safe flight rate, and who thinks that will happen in today’s constrained budget environment?

      And while it’s true the Falcon Heavy cannot match the SLS in the amount of mass it can lift, who cares? There are no single payloads that require the full lift capability of the Falcon Heavy either. Not yet at least. But at $135M, the Falcon Heavy can be used for current sized payloads and still make economic sense when compared to the much smaller Delta IV Heavy, which costs around $450M/launch.

      The opposite cannot be said about the SLS – it will never be the launcher of choice for much smaller payloads, since it will still cost $1.5-2.5B per launch.

      So while Elon Musk is focused on reducing the cost to do things in space – cargo, satellites, crew – a few congress people are more focused on INCREASING the amount of funding that goes to their districts, regardless if it results in a national asset or a dead-end program. And so far it appears it will be the latter, since no one in Congress has shown any interest in paying for anything the SLS is supposed to fly.

      My $0.02

    • Joe Prosser says

      Much as I loved the Shuttle and marvelled at it as a technical achievement it failed spectacularly in meeting its goal of making space flight cheaper. As boondoggles go the shuttle was a big one. The SLS tries to make sense of the development costs and investment in infrastructure surrounding the Shuttle’s components. It fails no less spectacularly to do this. NASA is always at its very best by making the ‘impossible’ possible. This requires innovation, ingenuity and expense. Ultimately NASA more than pays for itself by creating spin off products such as non stick pans to micro electronics. SpaceX is at its best by doing the ‘possible’ economically. SpaceX is actually the inevitable spin off engineering consequence of NASA. NASA may yet be saved by SpaceX. NASA must return to the role of choosing ‘impossible’ objectives and selecting contractors based on technical capability and engineering merit whilst holding out the carrot of financial reward. If NASA fails to drive innovation in the supply chain then it becomes a net drain on the US economy. Where SpaceX is innovative the SLS is not. As a development and hedge against the technical failure of SpaceX the SLS should be continued. However, if the SLS ever becomes the launch vehicle of choice it will ultimately kill off NASA as it is too expensive.

  2. Brian H says

    There’s more to Musk’s plan than meets the eye, unless you’ve been following Grasshopper. A maneuverable, re-usable rocket that returns to its launch pad and lands on all fours is a mega-game-changer. As Musk notes, compare jetliners with single-use rockets. The fuel cost per flight is miniscule; multi-use hardware is his goal. Imagine reducing SpaceX’s already world-beating prices per launch by a factor of 10+.

  3. Arnold Theisen says

    First, great read and spot on!
    Next, to be fair after my comment to another of your posts, you got it right this time; re: third attempt vs attempts on four separate days.
    Finally, nip-pic time: Using the term upstart to replace start-up aggravates. (You are not the only one to do it and I was surprised to see it in your post).


  1. […] Beyond proving its viability as a low-cost option for commercial spaceflight, SpaceX has again demonstrated that its technology appears sound. One more successful flight should open the way for the company to handle some of the military work that has gone to Boeing and Lockheed through their joint venture, United Launch Alliance. (Longtime space journalist Michael Belfiore did a nice job of summing up the situation on his blog.) […]

  2. […] Beyond proving its viability as a low-cost option for commercial spaceflight, SpaceX has again demonstrated that its technology appears sound. One more successful flight should open the way for the company to handle some of the military work that has gone to Boeing and Lockheed through their joint venture, United Launch Alliance. (Longtime space journalist Michael Belfiore did a nice job of summing up the situation on his blog.) […]

  3. […] Beyond proving its viability as a low-cost option for commercial spaceflight, SpaceX has again demonstrated that its technology appears sound. One more successful flight should open the way for the company to handle some of the military work that has gone to Boeing and Lockheed through their joint venture, United Launch Alliance. (Longtime space journalist Michael Belfiore did a nice job of summing up the situation on his blog.) […]

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