SpaceX Aims To Boost Rocket Production to Two Per Month by Year’s End

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WASHINGTON — The president of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. responded June 4 to nagging questions about the company’s ability to keep pace with its growing launch manifest, saying the proof will come this summer.

“Can we fly the missions we say we can fly?” Gwynne Shotwell said in a speech to the Atlantic Council here. “I think we’ll prove that over the coming months.”

SpaceX currently has up to a dozen launches on its manifest for the remainder of 2014, according to its website. Shotwell said the company has a backlog of 46 missions worth $4.2 billion.

SpaceX launched three missions in 2013, its most to date. For comparison, SpaceX’s chief U.S. competitor, United Launch Alliance, launched 11 times during the year.  

Michael Gass, ULA’s president and chief executive, recently pointed out that SpaceX has encountered “significant” launch delays and said the company had an “overcommitted manifest.” 

“It’s time for the other company to prove its technology,” he said.

Shotwell seemed to agree with the last statement. “Certainly we need to meet our cadence this year,” she said.

SpaceX has been producing about one Falcon 9 rocket per month, Shotwell said. By the end of the year, she said, the company hopes to boost that rate to two per month.

Among the Falcon 9 launches scheduled for this year is the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Deep Space Climate Observatory space weather monitoring satellite. Gass noted that launch, which cost $97 million, was awarded to SpaceX without ULA being allowed to bid.  

Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX has filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims seeking to block the U.S. Air Force from buying 22 first-stage rocket cores on a sole-source basis from ULA.

Meanwhile, Shotwell said an environmental assessment of a prospective SpaceX commercial launch site in Boca Chica Beach, Texas, about 37 kilometers east of Brownsville and 5 kilometers north of the Mexican border, is wrapping up.

“I think we’re close,” she said. “But we’re still keeping our options open. And by the way, we’re going to need lots of launch sites.”

SpaceX currently launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

In response to a question from a congressional staffer, Shotwell also addressed tentative plans to begin work on a new U.S. liquid-fueled rocket engine, an idea  that has gathered steam amid questions about the future availability of the Russian made RD-180 engine that powers ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket.

“Building a replacement for the RD-180 — I don’t know whether that’s exactly the right choice,” Shotwell said. “Investing in liquid propulsion-related technologies is a great choice for sure, certainly on components that can be used to build whatever engine the propulsion community finds a market for. Investing in the community is a great idea. I’d like to see it more on the component-development side, technology development-side.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s proposed 2015 defense authorization bill includes $100 million to develop a new U.S. rocket engine; counterpart legislation passed by the House recommends $220 million. 

 

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