SpaceX offers large rockets for small satellites

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LOGAN, Utah — SpaceX, which retired its Falcon 1 small launch vehicle several years ago, believes it can more effectively serve the growing small satellite market through rideshare accommodations on its larger vehicles, the company’s president said Aug. 9.

In a keynote speech at the 30th Annual Conference on Small Satellites at Utah State University here, Gwynne Shotwell said the company was working with companies that aggregate secondary payloads, such as Seattle-based Spaceflight, to fly on the Falcon 9 and future Falcon Heavy launch vehicles.

“We really love and appreciate working with aggregators of small satellite missions,” she said. “We’ve got a brand-new agreement with Spaceflight for four additional flights over the next four or five years.”

Spaceflight announced in September 2015 that it had purchased a Falcon 9 launch for what it called a “dedicated rideshare” mission planned for the second half of 2017. That mission will carry more than 20 spacecraft, including a lunar lander developed by SpaceIL, an Israeli team competing in the Google Lunar X Prize.

Spaceflight is also flying nearly 90 satellites as secondary payloads on its SHERPA payload adapter. SHERPA will fly with a Taiwanese satellite, Formosat-5, on a Falcon 9 later this year. Jason Andrews, president and chief executive of Spaceflight, said in an Aug. 8 presentation here that he expects that launch to take place in late October.

Shotwell said SpaceX also believes it can offer extensive secondary payload accommodations on its Falcon Heavy rocket. “There should be a lot of extra capacity on this rocket, and hopefully we will fly a lot of ESPA or ESPA-like rings underneath the primary payload to provide regular access for you all,” she said, referring to the EELV Secondary Payload Adapter, a common payload interface for small secondary payloads.

Development of the Falcon Heavy has been beset by delays, she acknowledged. “Sorry we’re late,” she said. “This is actually a harder problem than we thought.” Those delays have pushed back one early Falcon Heavy mission, carrying the Space Test Program 2 mission, with more than 30 satellites, to the third quarter of 2017.

Early in SpaceX’s history, the company was seen as a solution for the difficulties the smallsat community faced launching satellites through its Falcon 1. That vehicle, as initially proposed by SpaceX, planned to launch payloads weighing up to about 500 kilograms for $6 million a launch.

However, SpaceX retired the Falcon 1, which failed in its first three missions, after the successful launch of the RazakSat satellite on its fifth mission in 2009. “We could not make Falcon 1 work as a business,” Shotwell said.

At that time, she said, there was not enough demand for a dedicated small launch vehicle at that price to convince SpaceX to devote resources to it. “Falcon 9 and Dragon were much better products to pursue,” she said. “I had a hard time selling the Falcon 1. The market was just not there.”

A surge in interest in smallsats has changed the market for small launch vehicles, leading to plans for a number of dedicated small launchers, some with capabilities and prices similar to the Falcon 1. “Certainly the numbers, both the investment numbers as well as the number of launches, has changed dramatically, and that’s what Falcon 1 did not have at the time,” she said, later emphasizing that SpaceX had no plans to put the Falcon 1 back into service to compete with those new small launch vehicles.

A focus on reusability, and Mars

Shotwell also emphasized the company’s efforts to make the Falcon 9 first stage reusable as another key element in its efforts to provide affordable smallsat launch services, calling reusability “the single most important thing SpaceX is working on.”

As part of that work, SpaceX is test-firing one of the Falcon 9 stages it successfully landed, from the May launch of the JCSAT-14 satellite, at its McGregor, Texas, test site. That stage has already completed some full-duration static test firings. “We’re going to run as many tests on this stage as we can pull off,” she said. “Hopefully we’ll get more than four, and maybe eight to ten of these, before we go ahead and refly.”

Shotwell said there’s “a lot of interest” from customers interested in flying on a Falcon 9 with a reused first stage. “We may fly two of the previously-flown hardware this year,” she said.

There was also considerable interest in conference attendees on SpaceX’s long-term Mars ambitions. Shotwell said the company’s Red Dragon mission, which the company plans to launch as soon as 2018 to land on Mars, could accommodate smallsats as secondary payloads in the trunk section of the Dragon spacecraft. There will also be opportunities to include payloads within the Dragon itself.

As part of the company’s Mars mission architecture, SpaceX is developing a new engine, called Raptor, that will use methane and liquid oxygen propellants. “We just shipped the first Raptor engine to Texas last night,” she said. “We should be firing it soon.”

One audience member questioned SpaceX’s plans for human settlement of Mars, wondering why anyone would want to live there. “There are a lot of people on this planet that have a lot of very different ideas,” she said. “I’m sure there’s plenty of people who will want to go settle on Mars.”

To test this, she asked a show of hands from the standing-room-only audience of those who would be willing to go to Mars on an early expedition. About five to ten percent of the audience raised their hands. “Five percent of the world’s population is a lot,” she said.