Correction at 8:55 pm Eastern Time on March 21: Spaceflight was notified of SpaceX’s decision by text.
SAN FRANCISCO – SpaceX is severing ties with launch services company Spaceflight Inc. after years of working closely together, a move that surprised Spaceflight executives.
In an email sent to companies that send satellites to orbit on its popular small satellite rideshare missions, the “SpaceX Rideshare Team” said SpaceX “will no longer be flying or working with Spaceflight Industries after the currently manifested missions. We look forward to reliably launching all customers currently on our manifest and growing our relationships with new operators as well.”
Spaceflight was notified of SpaceX’s decision by text minutes before the email was sent to rideshare customers.
“We were surprised to learn of it on Friday, and were not given any insight into the reasoning behind the decision,” Jodi Sorensen, Spaceflight marketing vice president, said by email. “We continue to reach out to SpaceX in an attempt to discuss their position but haven’t heard back yet.”
In December, SpaceX removed a Spaceflight Sherpa tug from the SpaceX Falcon 9 Transporter-3 rideshare mission because the propulsion system, provided by Benchmark Space Systems, developed a leak.
Then, SpaceX declined to fly another Sherpa tug on the SpaceX rideshare mission scheduled to launch in April because of concerns about unrelated environmental factors affecting the spacecraft installed on Sherpa.
“Sherpa itself was subjected to all expected launch environments with industry standard factors,” Sorensen said by email. “Spaceflight and SpaceX continued to discuss analysis and test products up until Spaceflight was informed that SpaceX would not fly the vehicle, which was the day of final integration to the SpaceX vehicle.”
SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment.
SpaceX, a leading satellite rideshare provider, sent 105 satellites to orbit on the Jan. 13 Transporter-3 flight. SpaceX accommodated 88 satellites on the June Transporter-2 mission and 143 on the first Transporter rideshare launched in January 2021.
Launch integration is big business. Established and new launch providers rely on companies including Spaceflight, Exolaunch and D-Orbit to integrate cubesats and microsatellites as secondary payloads or on dedicated rideshare missions.
“We bring down the launch costs per satellite, supply essential mission hardware, take care of the end-to-end mission management, provide environmental testing and perform the satellite-to-launch vehicle integration,” an Exolaunch executive said by email.
Companies that have relied on Spaceflight to integrate satellites for SpaceX rideshare missions are considering their options for launching satellites beyond the current manifest. Firms that opt to book rideshare flights directly with SpaceX pay more than $1 million per payload, making it more expensive than relying on a rideshare provider.
“SpaceX is renowned for its reliability and overall performance as the leading global launch provider,” an Exolaunch official said. “We are proud that SpaceX delegates significant portions of the technical work to the launch integrators, who must ensure that they match and meet SpaceX’s technical requirements and high standards. If these requirements and high standards are not met, then the safety of the whole mission can be placed in jeopardy, which is an unacceptable risk.”
Spaceflight is a dominant player in the launch integration business. In 2021, Spaceflight supported the launch of 81 spacecraft from nine countries on 11 launches. In addition to integrating satellites for SpaceX, Spaceflight works with launch providers Rocket Lab and Astra Space.
The propulsion leak on Spaceflight’s Sherpa-LTC vehicle was discovered about three weeks before the Jan. 13 SpaceX Falcon 9 Transporter-3 launch. Root-cause analysis of the leak traced the problem to an oxidizer circuit in the propulsion system. The circuit actuated per design. “Unfortunately, a design flaw allowed some trapped liquid to be vented during the process,” Sorensen said.
“Out of utmost concern, Spaceflight decided not to fly the Sherpa vehicle,” Sorensen said. “All affected customers were re-manifested within weeks, and have already flown on alternative launches or are scheduled to fly in the next two months. Spaceflight has since worked with the vendor to address the root cause, and has subsequently received approval from SpaceX to fly the system on an upcoming Starlink mission.”
Regarding the upcoming launch, Spaceflight began working with SpaceX to address concerns about “the analysis and test results of Sherpa and its customer payloads” as soon as it became aware of them.
Despite Spaceflight’s “best efforts, SpaceX chose not to fly the Sherpa vehicle until the analysis and test approaches could be better understood,” Sorensen said. “We continue to work with SpaceX to understand their decision and address any concerns for future missions.”
Meanwhile, Spaceflight has found rides for all the affected satellites. “Several will continue to fly on this mission, while the others have been rebooked on alternative launches,” Sorensen said.