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For a brief moment in 2011, fledgling rocket maker SpaceX silenced critics with a deal to launch a commercial telecom satellite for one of the largest fleet operators in the world.
Announced in March 2011, the agreement with Luxembourg-based SES to loft the SES-8 satellite to geostationary orbit atop the twice-flown Falcon 9 rocket was widely viewed as a vote of confidence in the Hawthorne, Calif.-based startup, despite its running years late in demonstrating the ability to boost cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) for its primary government backer, NASA.
But during the past two years, as SpaceX secured contracts in major Asian markets, announced plans to introduce a heavy-lift variant of the Falcon and started construction of a new launch pad at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., the company has fallen further behind schedule.
“They’re running up against the reality of rocket engineering—getting these systems to work is hard,” says John Logsdon, a space policy expert and professor emeritus at George Washington University. “This is the teething pain of an emerging firm that doesn’t match the rhetoric, doesn’t match their optimism, but matches the reality of the situation.”
Earlier this year SpaceX pushed its first cargo demonstrator to the ISS under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to the end of April from February. It also slipped the schedule on a midsummer debut of an upgrade to the Falcon 9 main-stage engine, which SpaceX is obligated to fly before it can loft SES-8 next year.
Now slated to lift off no earlier than October from the new Vandenberg site, the overhaul of Falcon 9’s Merlin 1C engine aims to add enough power to boost payloads to geostationary transfer orbit. In addition to lofting SES-8, the more robust rocket positions SpaceX to deliver on commercial launch agreements with Hong Kong-based AsiaSat and Thaicom of Thailand beginning as early as next year.
“Commercial launches now represent over 60 percent of our upcoming missions,” SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said in February after announcing the agreement to launch AsiaSat-6 and AsiaSat-8 atop the Falcon 9 in early 2014.
With plans to debut the new Merlin 1D before year-end, SpaceX has been test-firing the motor “four or five times a week” at the company’s development facility in McGregor, Texas, says SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Grantham. The new Falcon 9 also will feature an extended propellant tank and wider payload fairing.
At Vandenberg, Grantham says SpaceX has completed demolition of the old launch site, including removal of a tower, and recently started construction of a new hangar. The upcoming launch is expected to deliver a small, scientific spacecraft built by MDA Corp. of Canada to a near-polar orbit. Delivery of hardware to the launch site, including the new rocket and satellite, dubbed Cassiope, is expected later this year.
Although SpaceX has secured commercial launch agreements with a handful of satellite operators, including a $500 million contract to loft Iridium’s 72 next-generation satellites to low Earth orbit in 2015-17, SES-8 marks the company’s first commercial mission to geostationary orbit. But with four flights on the SpaceX manifest in 2012 alone—Cassiope, the COTS demo and two commercial resupply services (CRS) missions scheduled under a separate, fixed-price contract with NASA—SES may need to consider other options.
“As an alternative, we always have a backup in place for all SES launches,” says Yves Feltes, a spokesman for SES, which has existing multi-launch agreements with Arianespace and ILS, in addition to a framework understanding with Sea Launch. “The same is true for SES-8.”
SpaceX is also expected to launch at least one mission for Orbcomm Inc. this year. After pulling a prototype of the operator’s second-generation data-relay satellite from the upcoming COTS demo, the two companies rescheduled the mission for mid-2012 as a piggyback on the first CRS mission.
SpaceX says it completed a dress rehearsal of the Falcon 9 at Cape Canaveral on March 1 in preparation for the upcoming COTS mission, loading the rocket with fuel and simulating a countdown to T-5 sec. But the company still has a roster of work to complete before the flight, which will be no earlier than April 20.
“It’s easy to expect success along the way,” Logsdon says. “But it’s still up to them to deliver on what they’ve promised.”