SpaceX Customer SES Gung-ho on Eve of Falcon’s Maiden Commercial Satellite Launch

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PARIS — Satellite fleet operator SES’s chief technical officer on Nov. 24 gave a ringing endorsement of launch services provider SpaceX some 24 hours before SpaceX’s Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket makes its first-ever attempt to place a satellite in commercial geostationary transfer orbit.

In a press briefing with SpaceX Chairman Elon Musk and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, SES’s Martin Halliwell went so far as to say Luxembourg-based SES’s relations with Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) are in some ways better than SES’s relations with its traditional launch-service providers.

Halliwell said SpaceX opened its doors to SES following the debut flight of the Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket on Sept. 29, a mission that was designed to prove the new Falcon’s ability to restart its upper stage which will be necessary for the flight of the SES-8 satellite, now scheduled for Nov. 25.

But the upper stage failed to restart when its igniter fluid lines froze in the cold temperatures of space and by virtue of their proximity to the motor’s liquid oxygen. Shotwell said the company has added thermal insulation to prevent a recurrence of the anomaly.

But she declined to delve into details of what happened, saying U.S. technology transfer regulations forbid full disclosure of the matter.

Halliwell said that SES is not worried about the Sept. 29 problem.

“We’ve worked extremely closely with SpaceX people to see exactly what’s been done” since the Sept. 29 flight, Halliwell said. “We’ve had extraordinary access to the engineering work that has been done. We are confident that all the risk has been retired.”

Halliwell, sounding every bit as gung-ho about SpaceX as Musk and Shotwell, said the SpaceX business model featuring launch prices that are substantially lower than the competition’s will be “a game-changer” for the commercial satellite industry. “It’s going to shake the industry to its roots.”

SES’s is the world’s second-largest satellite fleet operator, with 50-plus spacecraft in orbit. Its endorsement of SpaceX has given the Falcon 9 v1.1 an added dose of credibility in a market that is not known for risk-taking.

Without mentioning either the Arianespace launch consortium of Europe, which markets the Ariane 5 rocket; or International Launch Services of the United States, which markets Russia’s Proton vehicle – both regular SES suppliers – Halliwell said SpaceX has caused the established rocket providers to be “rather worried about their future and how they have organized themselves for the future.”

The U.S. Air Force has tentatively agreed to let the Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket into the stable of rockets the U.S. military uses once the vehicle has completed three successful flights.

Two of the three need to be consecutive flights, Showell said. Sh said the Sept. 29 flight counts as the first of these insofar as its mission, to launch a Canadian research satellite into low Earth orbit, was a success.