Shotwell on SpaceX launch backlog: “We will definitely catch up”

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WASHINGTON — SpaceX intends to conduct six Falcon 9 missions this year using rocket stages that have already flown before.

The first such mission, SES-10 for Luxembourg-based satellite operator SES, is scheduled to happen by the end of the month, SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said March 8 at the Satellite 2017 conference here.

Shotwell also anticipates that using Falcon 9 rockets with pre-flown first stages will enable the company to execute on its backlog, which is currently loaded with customers that expected to have their satellites launched in 2016. SES-10 was one such mission.

Shotwell
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell speaks outside Launch Complex 39A on Feb. 17. Credit: Craig Vander Galien

“We do anticipate reflying about six vehicles, [with] pre-flown boosters this year, which should take some of the pressure off of production,” Shotwell said.

Many of the company’s recent delays are due to the stand-down time following the Sept. 1 explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket during a pre-launch test that claimed both rocket and its satellite payload. That incident, which SpaceX founder Elon Musk called “the most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years,” also damaged company’s main Florida launch pad.

SpaceX traced the cause of the failure to composite overwrapped pressure vessels used for storing helium in the liquid oxygen tank of the rocket’s upper stage. According to the company, liquid oxygen pooled between the liner and carbon overwrap when the aluminum liner of the pressure vessel buckled, causing the pressure vessel to fail.

Shotwell said Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex-40 should be operational again this summer, which will give SpaceX additional room to launch along with Launch Complex-39A, the historic pad SpaceX pressed into service for a Feb. 19 cargo launch to the International Space Station.

“Once we’ve got two pads we should have plenty of capacity,” she said.

SpaceX also does some launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, notably the launches of Iridium’s next generation constellation, Iridium Next. The Falcon 9 return to flight mission took place from Vandenberg Jan. 14, delivering 10 Iridium Next satellites to low-Earth orbit. That rocket landed on a ship shortly after launch.

Shotwell said SpaceX is “investing hundreds of millions” of dollars into production capacity for Falcon 9, and that the company also invested at this high level last year.

“We will definitely catch up,” she said.

Shotwell said it took SpaceX roughly four months to refurbish the Falcon 9 first stage for the SES-10 mission. In the near-term, she said, that will drop below two months, and eventually down to a single day.

“I think Elon’s given us 24 hours, maybe, to get done what we need to get done, and it’s not a million people around a rocket scurrying like a beehive or an anthill. That vehicle needs to be designed to be reflown right away,” she said.

Bringing the Falcon 9 first stage back lets SpaceX examine the boosters after launch, which should improve reliability, Shotwell said.

“And once we get really good at that, we believe that’s a great downward pressure as far as prices goes,” she added.

SES-10 is currently the second mission in the SpaceX queue following EchoStar-23, a tri-band telecommunication satellite for services in Brazil. SpaceX has conducted two missions so far this year — the first Iridium Next mission and the Commercial Resupply Services-10 mission for NASA.

SES is again demonstrating its faith in SpaceX, having been the first customer to launch a commercial telecommunications satellite with the launch provider for SES-8 in November 2013.

“We’ll bring that one back, too,” Shotwell said of the SES-10 booster.