CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — By the time Space Exploration Technologies’ () Falcon 9 rocket deposited a Dragon cargo capsule into orbit 10 minutes after liftoff March 1, its small, telltale smoke plume had all but disappeared from Central Florida’s skies.
A more lasting sign of the fast-growing, privately owned firm’s success can be found in its launch manifest, which in addition to 10 more supply runs to the international space station includes science missions for the Canadian Space Agency, Argentina and NASA, two flights for the U.S. Air Force and 20 flights for communications satellite operators, , Orbcomm, , and AsiaSat, among others.
“Every commercial launch that was competed last year in the Falcon 9 class, SpaceX won,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president of the 3,000-employee, Hawthorne, Calif.-based firm.
So far, even technical glitches haven’t stopped SpaceX’s star from rising. In October, a materials defect triggered a premature shutdown of one of the rocket’s nine engines during the company’s first station cargo run under a 12-flight, $1.6 billion NASA contract.
On the next mission, which is currently under way, SpaceX missed its first rendezvous opportunity with the station while engineers worked on a problem with the Dragon’s thruster pods.
“Hiccups are common in any complicated mission and I am impressed by the resiliency and ingenuity of the SpaceX engineering team,” former astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, who now heads the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, wrote in an email.
“They are learning at a breakneck pace,” added Jim Van Laak, a former NASA manager now working with commercial space companies at the nonprofit National Institute of Aerospace in Hampton, Va.
Each time, SpaceX overcame the technical problem to reach the space station. And while any potential fallout from the capsule glitch has yet to be determined, the company emerged from its engine shutdown with new confidence.
“We lost no customers,” Shotwell said. “We had an engine shutdown and still made the mission. You don’t want it to happen, but the fact that the vehicle did exactly what it was supposed to do was impressive. We heard from the insurance community, they were impressed. Our other customers were impressed as well. I don’t believe there was a contract that we had in limbo that didn’t get signed in that time frame.”
The new customers include the U.S. military, which, in an era of declining budgets, hopes to cut its launch costs by breaking a( ) monopoly. SpaceX hopes to parlay the long-sought Air Force business into a shot at competing for the military’s lucrative Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle contract as early as 2015.
SpaceX will be counting on an upgraded Falcon 9 rocket, slated to debut in late June from a new launch site at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, to build its track record and win the military’s confidence.
Also paying close attention to that launch is a growing backlog of the world’s satellite fleet operators. The more powerful Merlin engine and larger payload fairing Falcon 9 will demonstrate when it launches Canada’s Cassiope satellite into polar orbit are required for SpaceX to begin launching large commercial communications satellites, starting with the roughly $100 million SES-8 satellite that Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. is building Luxembourg-based fleet operator SES.
Before the end of the year, the company also plans a test flight of its Falcon Heavy rocket, a potential game-changer not only for the military but for commercial companies and NASA as well.
Two days before Falcon 9 blasted off from Cape Canaveral for its second station cargo run, NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Assessment Group discussed whether a Falcon rocket might be certified in time to carry a planned nuclear-powered rover to the red planet in 2020.
The same day, space tourist Dennis Tito unveiled plans for a privately financed, two-person Mars flyby mission launching in 2018. His technical analysis was based on using a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket and Dragon-type capsule.
When asked about the prospect of flying to Mars, SpaceX’s Shotwell said, “I think his plan is very ambitious. We have been rumored to be in partnership with him, which we’re not. But we are a launch service provider and if he can come up with the funding to execute this mission I’d be happy to have him as a customer.”
For the near-future Mars may be too big of a stretch, but SpaceX is working to outfit Dragon capsules to carry people. NASA, which is financing part of the upgrade through its Commercial Crew Development program, is only one potential customer.
Waiting in the wings is Bigelow Aerospace, which intends to build, launch and operate privately owned inflatable habitats that would be leased out to research organizations, companies and space agencies. Bigelow needs a way to ferry crews and cargo to the orbital outposts.
“I think SpaceX will be flying a human-rated rocket and human-rated spacecraft by 2016, before maybe we even have our two BA 330s (space habitats) ready to fly,” said Robert Bigelow, company founder and chief executive.
“Right now, I think everyone is very impressed with SpaceX,” Bigelow said. “SpaceX has done a tremendous job successfully. They need to be recognized as a very serious player, and a very serious asset to this country.”
Bigelow Aerospace has two pricing options for its potential customers. One uses SpaceX rockets and capsules and the other offers rides by Boeing, which is developing a passenger spaceship, the CST-100, to fly on sister company ULA’s Atlas 5 rockets.
But Bigelow said a third option is evolving as well, one that may be the truest testament to SpaceX’s future: launching Boeing’s capsules on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets.